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First Annual Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day


Amit Dixit of Bosotn has been positive for over 10 years and for many years felt ashamed and feared what others in the community would think about his family. His parents stood by him but he can only imagine the pain that it has caused them. Some of his family in India broke off relationship, he still suffer from those scars till this day. He had isolated himself from his own community and even led a double life within his closest circle of friends. He discovered Map for Health 4 years ago when he attended a house party, the ED at that time was Gujrati and for the first time he dared to walk out of the shadows. Perhaps it's the image of our community being the "model minority" that encourages stigma or simply the notion that HIV affects only those less privilaged back home. He is living proof that it does exsist and there are many members in our community still in the shadows and afraid of getting tested which could lead to limited treatment options. He still struggle with the same fears and guilt but MAP for health has supported him in so many ways along this difficult path. Just a month ago he met another South Asian man who is struggling with many of the same issues, he is now aware of MAP for health and his healing process has started sooner.

With this is mind, more than 170 community members assembled at the Marriott Tremont Courtyard Hotel in Boston to mark May 19th 2005 as the first-ever, national Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  This historic day is officially recognized by United States Department of Health & Human Services and launches the Banyan Tree Project—a groundbreaking, five-year national campaign to foster acceptance and compassion towards those at risk or infected with HIV/AIDS in Asian and Pacific Islander (A&PI) communities.  Similar launch events were held in other cities around the U.S., including New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dearborn (Michigan), San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Honolulu. Photographs from the May 20th Boston reception are available upon request. 
Funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Banyan Tree Project seeks to involve people from all walks of life – ordinary people, community and religious leaders, corporate executives, celebrities, elected officials and the media – working together to reduce the cycle of shame and discrimination involving HIV/AIDS in A&PI communities.  By informing, teaching, and setting a positive example, the Banyan Tree Project aims to eliminate barriers that delay or prevent access to HIV prevention and care. 

Massachusetts Asian & Pacific Islanders (MAP) for Health, a Boston-based, non-profit, community-based organization, is a regional partner in the Banyan Tree Project.  Jacob Smith Yang, Executive Director of MAP for Health states, “For too long our Asian & Pacific Islander communities have been silent on this pressing health issue.  Sometimes traditional cultural values and taboos work to silence topics such as sexuality and sexual health in A&PI populations.”  He added, “These cultural messages can make us reluctant to hear important sexual health information, leaving us vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”

MAP for Health cites national and Massachusetts statistics indicating an important health disparity. Among racial groups, A&PIs with HIV have the highest rates of delayed discovery that they are HIV positive, often until they are very sick.   Delaying medical treatment of HIV infection until the onset of symptoms compromises an individual’s health outcomes and life expectancy.

At the Boston reception, MAP for Health also presented its second annual Siong Huat (S.H.) Chua Awards to Esther H. P. Lee, RN, Director of Development and Health Education at South Cove Community Health Center and Representative Peter Koutoujian, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care. The awards salute Asian & Pacific Islander health and/or gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender efforts and activism.  Mr. Chua was a writer and activist in the early fight for HIV/AIDS awareness among Asian & Pacific Islanders.  He died in 1994 due to complications of AIDS.

 Ms. Lee, a longtime community activist, was recognized for her pioneering HIV prevention efforts for A&PI communities. Early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she and South Cove Community Health Center worked nationally with AAPCHO (Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations) and locally with the newly formed Multicultural AIDS Coalition, to develop meaningful HIV education curricula for the A&PI community and its service providers. 

Representative Peter Koutoujian—a state legislator, representing the 10th Middlesex District (Waltham, Newton, Watertown)—was recognized for playing a key role in convening last year’s first Massachusetts legislative hearings that focus specifically on A&PI health disparities.  His award also reflects his leadership on HIV/AIDS issues.  Speaking on March 28th at AIDS Lobby Day at the State House he declared, “This is not something that is about ‘them’ – this is about ‘us,’” emphasizing the need for a community response to HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The national launch of the Banyan Tree Project includes the production and distribution of two groundbreaking 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) which call for a more compassionate, understanding attitude towards Asians & Pacific Islanders (A&PIs) at risk for, or living with HIV/AIDS.  National organizers project that the PSAs will reach more than 80 million cable-viewing households.  They are currently running on many Cable channels, including ImagAsian TV, MTV, Discovery Channel, US News, Lifetime, Court TV, and the Learning Channel.  The PSAs can also be seen on Direct TV and DISH Network.  Locally, the PSAs are shown on WHDH Channel 7.

The Project’s banyan tree symbol is a shared element across many A&PI cultures.  The tree’s branches continually shoot out new roots into the ground, corresponding to the Project’s tagline: “Rooted in Acceptance.”  It is also a tree under which the Buddha is said to have meditated and gained enlightenment, emphasizing the project goal of raising A&PI community awareness, understanding and compassion around HIV/AIDS.

While Banyan Tree Project organizers recognize that addressing HIV stigma is a challenge, they are also optimistic that this is a first step in the right direction.  Yang states, “Our hope is to change behavior and attitudes within the community, which means emphasizing compassion and understanding.  The first step towards solving a problem is to become aware and acknowledge it even exists.”

Banyan Tree Project activities are planned to continue throughout the years of the project.  Locally, a green silicone bracelet reading “Rooted in Acceptance” is being distributed to lend visibility to the issue of HIV in A&PI communities.

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