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Women of color are the fastest-growing group of HIV-infected people in the United States, but many people still perceive the virus that causes AIDS as a threat only to gay white men.

Adah Bush, coordinator of American Red Cross Nurses' Aid Training Program, added that this is indeed the perception on her reservation, but noted that HIV/AIDS infection on Indian reservations nationwide are "skyrocketing."Bush, a Ute Indian from the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, joined a Latina and African-American AIDS educator on a University of Utah panel to discuss the disease Tuesday. The discussion, "Ethnic Minority Women, HIV and AIDS: Perception of a Disease," was co-sponsored by the Women's Resource Center and the university's student health center.

The student health center celebrated University Health Awareness Week through Feb. 23.

In Utah, African-Americans have a rate of AIDS infection 12 times the rate of whites, who comprise 83 percent of all state HIV cases. Latinos, on the other hand, have a rate twice that of whites, according to the Utah Department of Health's Bureau of HIV/AIDS. American Indians' rate of infection is about equal to whites, said Bonnie Goad, coordinator of the U.'s office of health promotion and chair of the statewide Coalition of HIV & AIDS Educators.

"If we don't learn about it, we're not going to be able to stop it," said Gina Lopez, director of American Red Cross emergency services. "There are many different ways of catching (the virus)."

Men comprise 90 percent of those with HIV in Utah. An estimated 94 percent of those men live along the Wasatch Front. But while 72 percent of men contract the virus through homosexual sex, 47 percent of infected women get it through intravenous drug use. Another 21 percent contract HIV/AIDS after sex with a man who uses or used intravenous drugs.

The three panelists agreed that denial, low self-esteem and lack of communication are all sure-fire ways to increase one's risk of contracting HIV.

Terrlynn Crenshaw, co-chair of the state HIV Prevention Community Planning Committee, added that blacks' mistrust of health-care workers and government officials, coupled with shame, makes them less likely to step forward for initial testing and counseling once diagnosed.

Crenshaw, who is also a member of the National Minority AIDS Council, reminded the small crowd that it was the U.S. government's infamous Tuskegee Experiment on black men with syphilis that partly caused the mistrust. In that "experiment," men with syphilis were left untreated - and able to spread the venereal disease - for 30 years in Alabama.

Lopez said many Latinos think efforts to encourage safe sex are mere veiled attempts to push birth control on the largely Catholic community. Because Latinos are also predicted to be the largest U.S. minority group by 2000, many see safe sex efforts as a way to limit their overall numbers.

The panel added that collaboration and networking with various community and health organizations is key to getting the populace at large educated about this silent killer.

"The way to get over it is to talk and take away the uniqueness and novelty of the disease," Lopez said.