Courtesy NNHAAD
Knowledge Equals Life: Native HIV-AIDS Awareness Day. Balloon releasing ceremony celebrates those who have walked on.

National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Can Save Your Life, Or That of Someone You Love

Sam Laskaris

Though this year marks the 10th anniversary of the National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Pam Jumper-Thurman, the Director of the National Centre for Community Readiness, says there is still much work to be done in Native communities. “Native people tend not to get tested,” she says. “They think there is no risk to them.”

The national awareness day, first staged in 2007, is a venture to promote HIV testing in Native (American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians) communities across the United States and its territorial areas.

Jumper-Thurman fears that those Natives who think they have little risk of getting HIV or AIDS are basing that belief on deceptive statistics. She believes they are taking false comfort in the number of reported cases Natives across the country who have HIV or AIDS. She says those figures are considerably lower than what is actually the case, and that an accurate number is impossible to pinpoint because of the large number of people who do not get tested and are thus not aware that they have HIV or AIDS.

That’s why there’s still so much work to do. The 2016 national awareness day was held on March 20th, the first day of spring. After surveys were sent out asking for possible dates, the first day of spring was selected. “It was a day decided by Indian communities nationwide,” Jumper-Thurman says. “People chose the spring equinox because it is a day of balance. It is a time of rebirth and a time of renewal.”

Events were staged across the country on March 20th. “All states have come on board,” Jumper-Thurman says. “All states have at least one event. And it’s pretty even across the country. Some of the urban centers though have bigger resources so they have bigger crowds.”

The type of events staged in conjunction with the day varied widely. In the past spectators at high school basketball games have been encouraged to get tested that day. Others have targeted participants at road running events. Other events that have been staged and promote testing include balloon releasing ceremonies, in honor of those who died of AIDS or HIV-related illnesses.

Though Jumper-Thurman emphasizes that Natives are encouraged to get tested at any point during the year, she anticipates about 2,000 people will have been tested on this year’s national awareness day.

The Native Awareness day was founded by three agencies: the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, Commitment to Action for 7th-Generation Awareness and Educations and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. Since then, several others have joined the partnership. They include Begay Consulting, Center for Prevention and Wellness, Council Oaks Training and Evaluation, Inc., ETR's Community Impact Solutions Project, Florida Department of Health – HIV Section, and Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board. There is also now a 12-member material reviews committee that oversees all products developed for the awareness day.

Promoting the day nationwide takes a lot of time and coordination. “We have the money to develop posters, fact sheets and PSAs,” Jumper-Thurman explains. Public service announcements promoting the day this year feature Stefan Lessard, a Mohawk who is a member of The Dave Matthews Band and singer/songwriter Becky Hobbs of the Cherokee Nation.

Since the inception of the national awareness day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding to various groups. This funding provided capacity building assistance to Native organizations or those groups serving Native people. But in 2014, Jumper-Thurman says, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped provided funding to various Native groups and has only continued to provide funding for the national awareness day.

Other goals of the day include helping to decrease the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS and to encourage testing options and counselling in Native communities.

Jumper-Thurman adds that not only is it vital to get tested, it’s also important to decrease the stigma of getting tested, especially in smaller communities.

“In some cases it will be an aunt or a cousin who is doing the testing,” she says. “There’s that fear that everybody will know if they test positive.”

But when it comes to dealing with those who do have HIV, Jumper-Thurman says it’s best to know earlier rather than later. “Early detection is important to prolong life and to give them a better quality of life.”

Jumper-Thurman stresses that testing doesn’t take much time or effort. The procedure takes a few minutes and results are provided in about 20 minutes.

“This is what we are promoting: Protect Our People – Take The Test,” she says.

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