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Culture May be Hidden Antidote in HIV Fight

Fia Curley Special to The Informer | 7/23/2012, 5:15 p.m.

After 30 years of battling the virus that causes AIDS, tactics to end the epidemic have become strategic and varied. From bus ads and billboards, to online campaigns and commercials, to the first-ever National HIV Strategy, the fight for an AIDS-free generation is officially on.

Efforts on the ground have met with success as the number of deaths due to AIDS-related causes has given way to people living longer with HIV. Despite the turnaround, many on the front line have sought ways to access communities that may be at higher risk for contracting HIV, particularly in the immigrant populations who may not see themselves as the target of HIV messages.

In an effort to help health care workers make inroads into the immigrant population, the Office of Minority Health Resource Center's National African Immigrant Project uses training seminars to educate health care workers on better meeting the needs of African immigrants around the topics of HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. With a focus on cultural competency, each training gives providers and community workers insights into cultural practices and beliefs to enhance the care African immigrants receive in the health care setting.

Valerie Bampeo, an HIV health educator for Inova Juniper Program and an immigrant from Ghana, helped organize such an event in June just outside of Washington, D.C., hitting the max of 75 attendees almost a month in advance. The NAIP training, "Breaking the Glass," was a daylong seminar, highlighting the cultural nuances that are needed to navigate topics of sexual health and HIV stigma with African immigrant patients in order to better meet health needs.

Culturally competent trainings are a key component of the NAIP, which for the last four years has championed the training of physicians and community organizations who work with Africans to become aware of cultural differences in order to more effectively deliver prevention information to their clients and make a significant dent in HIV/AIDS rates in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. The program addresses issues such as stigma associated with HIV testing and status, culturally sensitive ways to discuss sexual health and HIV transmission, as well as the importance of prevention and early disease detection.

According to Bampeo, it is the cultural under-girding that is needed to make inroads into the community and save lives. "There are so many things that are different, so many different components about how we grew up and what we're exposed to that impact the way we do things."

"When you have no exposure, no training, you're probably going to do all the things you shouldn't do and cause [your patient] not to come back," Bampeo said. "It helps for providers to "be aware of the various things that could be impacting a person's life."

Instead, cultural competency takes into account the factors that impact a person's life, like race, language, beliefs and practices and country of origin and then uses that knowledge to help tailor delivery of care, with the goal of providing a quality health care experience.

"Cultural competency is key," Bampeo said. "I worked in an emergency room for three years and even more so in that setting you need to be in tune with everything in order to make an accurate diagnosis and save lives. In the non-critical setting it's still key, but they're going to need a lifetime of care, because HIV is a chronic disease."