By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
In response to the "fivefold" increase of HIV cases on the Navajo Nation since 1999, state legislators from Arizona and New Mexico have publicly committed to join forces to help the tribe combat what is an apparent health epidemic.
Last week, congressional leaders -- Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Rep. Ben Lujan (D-NM), Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) - wrote a letter to the heads of the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention and the Indian Health Services expressing their concern of the rapid increases of HIV cases on the Navajo Nation.
"The number of Navajo members newly infected with HIV has risen by over 400 percent in the past 13 years, when new cases are truly preventable," the leaders wrote to Tom Frieden, director for the CDC, and Yvette Roubideaux, acting director for the IHS.
They added, "From 2011-2012, 47 new cases of HIV infection have been diagnosed, an increase of 20 percent from the prior year and the highest number ever recorded among the tribe."
The congressional leaders referenced a report, called the Navajo Area Indian Health Services 2012 Annual HIV/AIDS Report, released by Jonathan Iralu in April 2013, an infectious disease specialist at Gallup Indian Medical Center.
In that report, Iralu tells tribal leaders, including President Ben Shelly, and health educators about how the 47 new cases of HIV is "alarming" and is a health epidemic for the Navajo Nation.
"HIV infection rates are climbing dangerously high on the Navajo Nation," he wrote. "It is very clear that the HIV epidemic on Navajo is growing."
Iralu also said most of the cases during the 2012 period indicate about 39 percent being men having sex with men, and about 22 percent of the cases being men having sex with women, or heterosexuals, and another 37 percent of those cases coming from an unknown risk population.
Most of these cases were in the Gallup Service Units, with 25 of the 47 cases. The Tuba City Service Unit had six cases, while both Chinle and Shiprock had five new cases for 2012.
The Fort Defiance Service United reported four cases. The Crownpoint, Kayenta and Winslow Service Units had fewer than two new cases.
Though there were five deaths related to HIV in 2012, Iralu said the death rate of HIV remains low. This means, he said, that care at IHS and '638 health facilities on and near the Navajo Reservation is improving. Still, as Iralu pointed out, the rapid increase of HIV staggeringly increasing is startling. Even for Lujan and Kirpatrick.
"I am deeply concerned about the staggering statistics that show the dramatic increase in HIV cases on the Navajo Nation," Lujan said. "That is why we took action to draw the agencies attention to this serious matter. We are calling on them to use their resources to address the issue, and we will continue to follow up with them to see that action is taken."
The congressman said he has always supported funding for and has opposed any efforts, like the sequester, that can negatively impact funding for these agencies providing healthcare to Native American communities."
As for Kirkpatrick, she said she's urged the CDC to apply its full resources toward addressing the HIV epidemic.
"I'm also working with the IHS to determine whether they have the funding they need to address this, both in terms of community education and treatment resources," she added. "We need to stop this growing problem before it devastates even more Navajo individuals and families."
Considering that there are only five health prevention field workers providing education about HIV to the 150,000 or so Navajos living on the reservation, Council delegate Joshua Butler is encouraged by the congressional commitment and support.
As a member on the Navajo Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee, he knows firsthand how any form of support, especially financial, is to curbing the rapid rates of HIV.
"It is a very much a concern here on the Navajo Nation," he said. "We're certainly going to need their help in strengthening our programs, which will mean we're going to need federal funding to educate our people in our communities."
With the congressional commitment and their acknowledgement that HIV is, in fact, a health epidemic, Butler said partnerships and strategy will be key.
He added that a visit by the congressional leaders and the CDC would help them understand the epidemic by interacting and strategizing with the various Navajo health education programs on addressing HIV.
"We need to strategize how were going to address this and increase federal funds to our programs," Butler said, adding, "Right now, we only have five health educators on the Navajo nation and that is 27,000 square miles."
Today, the Navajo Council's Naabik'iyati' Committee is scheduled to a hear report from Iralu and Philene Herrera, program manager for the tribe's health education, HIV, and teen pregnancy prevention program, on the increase of the HIV cases on the reservation.