Moving the Needle: National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Content From: Lance Toma, Chief Executive Officer, San Francisco Community Health CenterPublished: June 18, 20213 min read


Lance Toma
Lance Toma

We know that Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities face considerable challenges when it comes to HIV prevention, treatment, testing, and care, something we are reminded of each May 19 when we observe National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NAPIHAAD). Originally spearheaded by the San Francisco Community Health CenterExit Disclaimer (SFCHC), NAPIHAAD educates the public and raises awareness of HIV risks and the impact of HIV-related stigma on the entire API community.

There’s often a silence around sexual health, queer sexual orientation, and gender identity in API communities—the same is true for HIV. Adding to the stigma, members of the API community face familial shame, discrimination, and other barriers when it comes to accessing HIV testing, prevention, treatment, and care. The work to combat and improve these barriers is complex, heightened by our non-monolithic cultural identity, explicit distinctions, and different languages—all of which present unique challenges.

To better reach the API community with culturally tailored communications and stories, SFCHC launched the Banyan Tree ProjectExit Disclaimer in 2005, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This communications and community engagement campaign shares digital stories in various Asian languages from API people diverse in gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and cultural backgrounds about living with or being impacted by HIV and AIDS as a way of eliminating HIV stigma. If we want to move our API communities forward toward more acceptance and away from shame and stigma, then we must change hearts and minds—bottom line.

HIV diagnoses among Asians and Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) in the United States and dependent areas accounted for about 2% and <1%, respectively, of HIV diagnoses in 2018. While Asians make up 6% of the U.S. population, HIV affects NHOPI in ways that are not always apparent because of their small U.S. population size (0.2%). Despite the smaller population size, we must continually remember that HIV is impacting API and NHOPI communities in ways that are not acceptable and may not be readily apparent. To fully understand the impact on individual communities, we must disaggregate data. For example, the disproportionate impact of HIV on Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander communities is apparent only when the data is disaggregated.

A united approach firmly rooted in solidarity for communities of color is still critical. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t been supported by our Black and Latinx colleagues. I’ve been working with the Black AIDS InstituteExit Disclaimer and the Latino Commission on AIDSExit Disclaimer for years and most recently we created our Stronger Together PartnershipExit Disclaimer. Ending the HIV epidemic must include efforts and organizations led by people of color because we will be able to reach those who are hardest to reach; that’s what it’s going to take.

We must get tested and talk about HIV within our families and communities, as there’s still a huge number of us who haven’t been tested and who are living with HIV and don’t know it yet. If we’re negative, we need to know that PrEP is an option. We need to begin treatment as soon as possible if we test positive. If we are living with HIV, we need to know that viral suppression, also known as U=U, protects our health, helps us live a long healthy life, and prevents passing HIV on to others. We can work toward viral suppression by seeking and staying engaged with a health care provider that’s right for us.

We have to take advantage of this moment! We can’t take for granted that things are headed in the right direction. We must make sure we continue to advocate even though there has been progress. Together, we can really move the needle on behalf of our communities. This is what keeps me going!