The number of Asians and Pacific Islanders infected with HIV or AIDS remains relatively small, but the steady rise in infections is cause for concern.
In many households, lack of discussion about the topic leaves youth at greater risk for the disease, said Tom Yang of Lifelong AIDS Alliance’s MPowerment program for queer youth. A similar stigma around sexuality is also partly to blame.
“If you grew up in a culture where sex wasn’t even talked about,” Yang said, “how would you know what to do?”
Both AIDS and homosexuality remain “taboo” subjects in many Asian cultures, Yang said, although progress has been made. He pointed to a recent record-breaking pride parade in Taiwan that drew around 30,000 participants.
“It’s still very much a stigma,” said Yang. “There’s never many positive news pieces like we see in the West. In Asian countries sometimes people have to live double lives just to get by.”
The U.S. Census Bureau lists Asians and Pacific Islanders together, but this wide grouping paints an inaccurate picture of a very diverse group of people.
“Sometimes it is tempting to lump us all together but there are differences in the various API groups,” said Maxine Chan of the International Community Health Services in an e-mail.
Of the 421,873 living with AIDS in the U.S. in 2005, 1 percent (4,276) were Asians or Pacific Islanders (API), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of new AIDS diagnoses for APIs increased from 398 in 2005 to 525 in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of actual AIDS cases may be even larger than reported, according to the CDC.
The low number of reported infections for Asians and Pacific Islanders may stem from a lack of discussion and support for those suffering from the disease, said Todd Hull, the men’s outreach specialist at Lifelong AIDS Alliance.
Hull just completed a program with the Institute for HIV Prevention Leadership about Asian and Pacific Islander gay and bisexual men. He said that fear of isolation prevents many from looking for support or getting tested for the disease.
“Less than 50 percent of APIs have actually been tested for HIV,” he said.
According to the CDC’s most recent report on HIV and AIDS among Asians and Pacific Islanders, 44 percent diagnosed with HIV progressed to AIDS within one year. This compares to 37 percent of whites, 40 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Hispanics.
Some explanation of increasing HIV/AIDS rates among Asians and Pacific Islanders can be traced to racism within the gay community, Hull said.
“There’s a prescribed expectation of sexual roles based on race,” he said. “People expect API guys to be the receptive partner.”
Moving beyond these stereotypes, as well as having support space for Asians and Pacific Islanders, would help prevent the spread of HIV, Hull said.
“People need help and they don’t feel like they can talk about it,” he said. “You can’t treat an illness if nobody knows you have it.”
Despite the lack of support groups for Asians and Pacific Islanders in Seattle, there are many ways for those affected by the disease to get help. The Lifelong AIDS Alliance offers support programs and referrals for testing and medical care. Gay City and Harborview’s STD Clinic provide anonymous testing.
Talking to a doctor about the disease is the best place to start, Yang said. Doctors can educate their patients and help them find support, he added.
“The only way your provider can help you is if you talk to them,” he said. “They operate from a really non-judgmental perspective.”
Getting the facts about STDs and what constitutes risky behavior are key to keeping HIV and AIDS under control, Yang said. The most important thing is to get tested if there is any concern at all.
Dec. 1 was AIDS Awareness Day. More information about HIV and AIDS can be found online at www.lifelongaidsalliance.org. Other resources are available at www.cdc.gov and www.aids.gov. Asians and Pacific Islanders looking for medical care should contact their primary care provider or International Community Health Services at (206) 788-3700 or online at www.ichs.com.