WASHINGTON - First things first: To single out Native women, even for something possibly lifesaving and probably healthy like HIV/AIDS testing, is still to single them out, and Cecelia Fire Thunder doesn't like it.
Fire Thunder, a coordinator for Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, was protesting experimental medical programs for American Indian women almost 20 years ago. Her campaign against the ''colonized'' acceptance of segregationist medical attentions of any sort hasn't wavered, as she made clear in her reaction to a plea for HIV/AIDS testing from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
''I just think that all sexually active women should get checked out, no matter what race they are - not just Native women. I don't like that.''
But it can be said of the foundation that if it was going to call for HIV/AIDS testing of Native women, at least it did so on a factual basis. Rates of HIV/AIDS infection continue to rise among Native people, placing them third in the nation as a percentage of size, after blacks and Hispanics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The foundation states that studies show the shortest time for American Indians and Alaska Natives, of all U.S. racial groups, between AIDS diagnosis and death. Almost a third of new HIV/AIDS patients among American Indians and Alaska Natives are women, and more than two-thirds of them contracted the condition through heterosexual contact, the foundation maintains.
The foundation suggests that the courage it takes to even be tested for HIV/AIDS can be summoned for the sake of healthy children, adding that 98 percent of children with HIV contract it from their mothers. (HIV is the precursor to AIDS.)
''Getting tested certainly requires courage, but knowing the results is critical to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS,'' foundation President and CEO Pamela W. Barnes said in a release. ''Knowing her status, an HIV-positive woman can receive the proper care and treatment to give birth to a healthy, HIV-negative baby.'' Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is best prevented by the testing of pregnant women.
''The high rate of HIV/AIDS infection within Native communities is cause for grave concern,'' Barnes added, ''but focusing on prevention, particularly among women, can help turn this around. It is especially important for pregnant women to receive testing and treatment to prevent the spread of HIV to their babies.''
The foundation's release did not offer a rate of pediatric HIV infection among Native infants, and no up-to-date figure was readily available elsewhere by press time. The national rate of pediatric HIV infection is less than 2 percent, down from 2,000 a year at the height of the AIDS pandemic to fewer than 200 a year in the United States, according to the foundation.
With fewer than 200 cases of pediatric HIV occurring annually nationwide, it couldn't be ascertained whether a case of American Indian or Alaska Native pediatric HIV transmission had actually occurred up to 2005, the most recent year for which complete CDC data is available. The foundation remains concerned that American Indian and Alaska Native women could be slipping through the cracks in the health care system.
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation took part, along with numerous other organizations, in National Native AIDS Awareness Day March 20. The foundation is recognized as a worldwide leader in the fight against pediatric AIDS.