HIV and AIDS may often be associated with the homosexual male demographic, but ethnic minority awareness groups are bringing light to the increasing rise in HIV infection in an unexpected minority group — heterosexual Asian and Pacific Islander women.
May 19 marked the seventh annual National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Awareness efforts from the ethnic community groups, such as the Banyan Tree Project — a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention partner — and the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, focus on reducing the number of women who contract HIV while promoting HIV testing and safe sex.
According to a San Francisco Department of Public Health survey, the ethnic group had 910 cases of AIDS in San Francisco between 1980 and March 31, 2011.
With Asian and Pacific Islanders diagnosed with 8.7 percent of all San Francisco AIDS cases in 2010, this was a 93.3 percent increase from 2000 when the minority group represented only 4.5 percent of all diagnoses.
The Asian & Pacific Island Wellness Center is concerned about the spread of HIV within this minority group because of their low rate of HIV testing and silence about sexual health, according the group.
At an expert panel at the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch May 17, Hyeouk Chris Hahm, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at Boston University, said that nationwide 80 percent of the ethnic group’s women contracted HIV or AIDS through a or male partner.
Other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are rising at a faster rate for Asian and Pacific Islander women, Hahm said.
The proportion of HIV testing among the ethnic group’s women is also a concern for the community because — at 17 percent — it was the lowest of any other ethnic group, according to Hahm.
The rate of all American women diagnosed with new HIV or AIDS cases is quickly escalating, with a jump from 8 percent in 1985 to 27 percent in 2005, according to data from the CDC presented by Hahm.
Hahm and fellow panelist Sonia Rastogi, coordinator of Positive Women’s Network Strategic Communications Action Team, said several factors contribute to the silence about sexual health among women in the ethnic group.
Rastogi and Hahm cited a cultural collectivist nature that makes many women fear shame and stigma from family and friends, avoidance of sexual communication with partners, and an acceptance by the women that a life with HIV or AIDS is part of their fate.
Additionally, Rastogi said that Asian and Pacific Islander women are suffering from a low-risk perception in the medical community.
“Women are constantly turned away from HIV testing,” she said about health care providers who consider gay white men, blacks or Hispanics more likely to be at risk for HIV or AIDS.
Hahm said “Perfect Asian American Women Syndrome” is an ideal self-image many Asian American women fall prey to and project onto sexual partners, which convinces them they are removed from diseases such as AIDS and HIV. These women therefore do not use condoms or avoid talking about sexual histories with new partners, according to Hahm.
Jaimie Kahale-Callahan, who lives with HIV, was also at the panel and spoke about her experience as an Asian and Pacific Islander heterosexual woman. She contracted the disease from her husband while in a monogamous relationship.
“We have a tendency to have sex, but not talk about it,” she said about the Asian and Pacific Islander population.