Rate of AIDS up for Alaska Natives

FAIRBANKS -- Alaska Natives are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS at a higher rate than Caucasian Alaskans and state health officials aren’t sure why. Officials say the rate has gradually increased since 1997.

Alison Bell, a medical epidemiologist specializing in HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, said one reason for the increase could be that more Alaska Natives are being tested for the disease. On the other hand, she said, the rise also could mean the stigma of AIDS continues and people aren’t being tested in time, spreading the disease.

"In some of the smaller villages, we hear that there is some reluctance to do testing because it’s hard to do it confidentially," Bell told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Since the first known case in Alaska in 1982, 781 cases of HIV and AIDS have been reported. Of those, 21 percent are Alaska Native or American Indian. In 1997, that number stood at 18 percent. Alaska Natives and American Indians make up 17 percent of Alaska’s population, Bell said.

Caucasians account for 59 percent of the total cases and 74 percent of the overall state population.

Statistics by the Alaska Division of Public Health do not show whether the majority of HIV and AIDS cases among Alaska Natives are among people who live in urban or in rural areas of the state.

But Megan Gerson, youth outreach specialist and case manager at Interior AIDS Association, noted the cost of providing services in the villages as one reason for the increasing rate of the disease among Alaska Natives.

Interior AIDS Association has little money for outreach programs in rural Alaska, Gerson said.

"With few exceptions, basically our clients need to be able to get to us," she said.

Tanana Chiefs Conference, the main entity for health care for Alaska Natives in the Interior, administers some HIV and AIDS programs in the Bush, Gerson said.

Officials with TCC either could either not be reached or declined comment.

"I think this (the high rate) goes along with national trends for a lot of people infected with HIV," Gerson said. "There’s not enough money for so many groups, and I’m sure Alaska Natives are among them."

12/09/2001 - 8:00pm