AIDS/HIV: Keep it in the open

AIDS activists rally in Washington, D.C. to demand more funding for AIDS research. (Getty Images).

By Bert Eljera

LAS VEGAS –  In the Asian American Pacific community, HIV/AIDS is something people would rather not talk about.

It’s a taboo that prevents an open discussion – and therefore, prevention of the disease – that continues to ravage the community.


In a recent story on a Korean-language news site in Los Angeles,  male readers were warned about a female employee at a local karaoke club. The woman, described as an undocumented immigrant, allegedly resides in Koreatown and moonlights as a sex worker in local bars.

“She uses several names,” the story said, “and works as a maid during the day… she is HIV positive.”

The identity of the woman was not disclosed, but it was remarkable that it became a topic of public discussion in the Korean-American community, according to Peter Schurmann, writing for New American Media in San Francisco, Calif.

In a 2010 report, the Office of Minority Health of the Department of Health and Human Services, paints this picture of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders on the issue of HIV/AIDS:

  • Asian Americans have lower AIDS rates than their white counterparts and they are less likely to die of HIV/AIDS.
  • Asian Americans are less likely to have been tested for HIV/AIDS.
  • The total number of reported AIDS cases has generally declined over the past five years for the white population, however it has increased for Asian-Americans.
  • Asian-American women are 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the number of new reported cases of HIV infection among Pacific Islanders nationwide declined somewhat in 2010, among Asians there was a 5 percent jump.

Asian women in particular, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are 20 times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women.

Compounding the problem, health care workers say, most Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are seldom tested. The disease carries such stigma and prejudice that people chose they’d rather not know whether they have the virus or not.

While cultural pressures are evident in all sub-groups of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander, the lid is particularly tight among Korean-Americans.

In Georgia, Diana Lee, a program manager with the center for Pan Asian Community Services, told New American Media’s Schurmann, Atlanta has seen a recent a dramatic increases in its Asian population.

It has also seen the sharpest rise in HIV infections in the United States, she said.

“Calls come in [to the center] about immigration issues or other matters,” Lee said.  “Then they ask about HIV. But Asians don’t have HIV.”

The center is the first social services agency, and the only one providing HIV/AIDS care, targeting APIs in the southeast region.

Lee, a Korean-American, who does outreach to try and raise awareness around HIV, said it’s common for her to encounter hostility from fellow Koreans

Steve Cha, a health worker at APAIT Health Center, said among Asian and Pacific islanders in Los Angeles County, Koreans are among those highly infected with HIV/AIDS.

At the top of the list are Filipinos, followed by Thais, Vietnamese and Japanese, he said.

Cha said Koreans make up about 3 percent of total reported cases in the API community.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lumps together data from the API community, rather than breaking the numbers down by ethnicity, Cha said.

He said over half of APIs at risk of infection – including sex workers and men who sleep with other men (MSM) — “have never been tested.” Issues of language, fear of being identified with the sex trade, and fear of alienation are behind the low numbers, he added.

“The Koreans who do come in are often monolingual [speaking only Korean] and are court mandated” to be there, suggesting a connection to sex work, Cha said.

Statistics show that nationwide, just over 26 percent of Koreans have been tested for HIV, compared to 30 percent for the overall API population, 36 percent for Hispanics and close to 50 percent for blacks.

Lee and Cha agreed that part of the problem has to do with attitudes regarding sex. “They think of it as a gay disease,” said Cha, adding that 70 percent of Koreans in California voted in favor of Proposition 8, which sought a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

Such attitudes, they say, make it difficult to even broach the subject of HIV/AIDS.

This lack of testing and the consequent lack of reporting explained partly the dearth of data on HIV/AIDS cases in the Asian Pacific American community.

Asian Pacific Americans represent 2.8 percent of the total reported HIV/AIDS cases in California as of June 30, 2011, according to the California Office of AIDS.

But despite their relatively low risk level when compared to other ethnic groups, one in three Asian Pacific Americans living with HIV is unaware of their status.

“There is still this belief that if you don’t feel sick and if you don’t look sick probably there’s nothing wrong with you,” said Peter Cruz, senior program manager of prevention services at APAIT Health Center. “And so APIs won’t access medical care unless the physical symptoms start manifesting.”

In Los Angeles an estimated 13,250 people living with HIV do not know it, according to the County of Los Angeles Public Health.

In the state of California, 4,053 Asian Pacific Americans living with HIV/AIDS, according to a June 30, 2011, report by the California Department of Public Health’s Office of AIDS.


Follow Bert Eljera on Twitter @vegaspinoy60, on Facebook at and at

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