Navajo Nation ‘Gingerly Treads’ Line Between Tradition, Reality To Step Up AIDS, STD Education, Prevention Efforts
Navajo Nation health officials have instituted new education and prevention measures to combat HIV/AIDS and recent outbreaks of syphilis on a reservation in New Mexico, "gingerly tread[ing] the line between traditional tribal values and the realities of disease prevention," the Associated Press reports. The tribe had nearly eliminated syphilis in the late 1980s but has seen the number of new cases jump from two in 1999 to nine in 2000 and then to 34 in 2001 and 2002. The tribe established its own AIDS office in the late 1980s to address the new threat, and the office "became an active force" in public health education and prevention on the reservation during the 1990s. However, grant funding for the program ran out several years ago. "I think we got complacent," Dr. Diana Hu, chief clinical consultant for maternal and child health of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said, adding, "We only had a couple of cases of syphilis a year. We had HIV but said it's being imported. Then, all of a sudden, boom!" There are now signs that HIV is being spread locally rather than being imported from border towns.
The Navajo Nation faces cultural obstacles, including taboos against openly discussing sex and homosexuality, in trying to create education, prevention and treatment programs, the Associated Press reports. Also, there are no words in the Navajo language that correspond to some STDs. Cora Phillips, head of the Navajo Nation Division of Health, has tried to bring the education campaign "into the public spotlight," according to the Associated Press. The health division in March ran a full-page ad in the Navajo Times that featured Navajo President Joe Shirley alongside a message promoting safe sex, STD education and testing. Phillips said that Shirley's participation was important symbolically, according to the Associated Press. "We haven't seen this kind of collaboration in years past," Melvin Harrison, executive director of the not-for-profit Navajo AIDS Network, said, adding, "I've been to the president's office several times in the last several weeks. I used to have to go to the president and request assistance. So being called to the president's office is a great feeling." Phillips has assembled a task force to oversee prevention and treatment efforts and is bringing together traditional tribe members to address the language barrier. Education and prevention efforts have included distributing safe sex pamphlets and free condoms. According to the Associated Press, there is evidence that the education campaign is working. Dr. Jonathan Iralu, an infectious disease consultant for the Navajo Area IHS, said that a woman came into his hospital who knew about the recent syphilis epidemic "because she had read all about it in the newspaper." Iralu added, "I was really excited" (Hoffman, Associated Press, 5/8).