HIV still holds great stigma, especially in African culture

Some HIV-positive immigrants have been deported by their families.

Hilary Brueck

.”My name is Sheila Mills and I live with HIV on a daily basis.”

Awe swept across the Mayo Building auditorium Monday as one audience member spoke. More than 200 doctors, medical professionals in lab coats, eager medical students and members of the African immigrant community in Minnesota filled the room.

All slumped heads popped out of their chairs. A communal inhale, just short of a gasp, could be heard across the room.

They were gathered to discuss the feminization of HIV and its disproportionate presence in African populations, both in recently released 2007 Minnesota Department of Health statistics and abroad in Africa.

The goal was to brainstorm some solutions on both local and international scales.

Women, specifically African-born women, are increasingly diagnosed with HIV and “stigma is killing us,” Mills said, her arms raised, waving in indignation.

“I think what lacks in the health care industry is a sense of compassion, a sense of caring about that person,” she said.

Doctor Omobosola Akinsete, who was born and raised in Nigeria, agreed. A self-proclaimed “brain-drainer” who left home to work in the United States, she treats infectious disease patients, many with HIV and AIDS, at Hennepin County Medical Center.

She said the No. 1 issue HIV patients face today is the same as when the disease was first recognized in 1981: stigma.

But this stigma is no longer just affecting homosexual male populations.

Akinsete said African families often alienate HIV-positive kin. Their minds are riddled with misconceptions, she said. HIV is labeled as a deadly disease for the promiscuous and homosexual, and patients would often “rather die” then tell their families the truth.

Akinsete said she has patients whose families have deported them back to Africa, or sent them to group homes, in lieu of helping with treatment.

“Your family is disgraced as well,” Akinsete said of African culture.

In addition to these general stigmas, women-specific factors play a large role in the increasing numbers of women with HIV, especially in African populations.

Factors as varied as lack of economic independence, female anatomic vulnerability, forced sexual relations and the African taboo of condom use play a big part in why women are becoming an increasingly greater portion of HIV cases.

Couple this with new technology and medicines that make the disease manageable and medical professionals are having serious concerns about resurgence in sexual activity.

“There’s some complacency about HIV,” Luisa Pessoa-Brandao, the Minnesota Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS surveillance coordinator, said. “It’s no longer a death sentence.”

Pessoa-Brandao stressed the importance of getting tested and knowing your status.

But Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is still at odds with funding for African HIV and AIDS relief in the House.

She’d like to provide nutrition initiatives in Africa and work to improve conditions in places like Uganda, where for a population of around 27 million, there are 75 surgeons.

But she said she’s met with resistance from people like Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., who sees every attempt at “family planning,” an integral part of fighting the spread of HIV in Africa, as pro-abortion legislation, and blocks it from any House funding.

Bachmann could not be reached for comment on her policy Monday.