Your View: Religion, culture may contribute to Alexandrias high AIDS rate

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To the editor:
    On Feb. 28, 2011, Micheal Pope of WAMU 88.5 reported Alexandria has the highest AIDS rate in Virginia. Mr. Pope said, Despite protracted efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, Alexandrias rate of incidence is 3.4 times higher than the rate across Virginia.     
    According to the news, Most people living with HIV and AIDS in Alexandria are African-American men, a group that the commission on HIV / AIDS in Alexandria has been trying to target by reaching out to the faith community. 
    As a home to thousands of immigrant communities, the commission also needs to take note of the role of religion and culture of the immigrant communities on HIV / AIDS prevention and control. Culture and religion can be hinderances if they dont nurture contributions to that end. 
    An outstanding instance in this respect is the strong desire by HIV / AIDS patients of Ethiopian origin to keep it undisclosed. In 2008, I had the opportunity to do my nursing clinical practice in one of the clinics in Alexandria, where many HIV-positive men and women of Ethiopian origin get health support. One of the issues their respective case managers raised to me was the lack of will to disclose their status to friends and family members. 
    The case managers were very curious why this was the case. It did not surprise me at all, but it took me back a couple of decades into the past. Even after landing here in the United States, where following the proper treatment regiment has changed the myth about HIV / AIDS, people remained skeptical of disclosing themselves for cultural and religious reasons. 
    When HIV / AIDS was discovered and permeated almost every neighborhood in Ethiopia, the victims were viewed as promiscuous and guilty of unprotected sex with prostitutes, practices abundantly denounced by the Christian and Islamic faiths in Ethiopia. Churches and mosques rejected the use of condoms and preached abstinence. Equating intercourse before marriage to sin was their prime teaching method. The churches and mosques were not places for victims to go due to the unpleasant characterization of contracting HIV / AIDS. It was hardly possible to find a supportive environment for people to disclose their status for fear of the stigma and stereotyping. 
    According to David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, The evidence underscoring the problem presented by the stigma of being HIV-positive is widespread. The culture of secrecy, at least among those from the highlands, almost certainly contributes to this situation. 
    The consequences were multifaceted for victims: shame, fear, isolation, desperation, depression, avoiding public areas, etc. Millions chose to remain underground. Hence, the public health effort to prevent and control HIV / AIDS by involving faith groups should address some of these religious and cultural problems that can be counterproductive to the overall effort.

– Tilahun Kassaye
Registered nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital

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