FARMINGTON — The first case of the human immunodeficiency virus on the Navajo Nation was reported in 1987. It was not the last.
In the past 25 years, the number of HIV cases on the Navajo Nation has risen exponentially. Nearly 40 new cases were reported in 2011, and 35 were reported in 2010, according to a report this week from representatives of the Indian Health Service, the Navajo Nation Health Education Program, and the Navajo AIDS Network.
The steady spread of the virus, which is responsible for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is not expected to slow anytime soon.
Since the mid-1990s, an average of 10 new cases per year used to be diagnosed. In the last three years, however, that statistic has quadrupled, the report said.
“We haven't reached that leveling off point yet,” said Philene Herrera, manager of the Navajo Nation Health Education Program.
The Navajo Nation usually follows the same patterns of the United States, but is about 10 years behind the trend usually.
The United States, for example, saw both HIV and AIDS rates climb in 1980s primarily in the male homosexual population. The Navajo Nation in the 1990s saw its numbers taking a similar path.
Now, the numbers are taking another path.
Not only are male homosexuals being diagnosed with HIV, but so too are women.
“(Homosexual males) engage with heterosexual males, and they, in turn, engage with, heterosexual females,” said Herrera.
The Navajo population is not the only Native American group susceptible to HIV and AIDS. The HIV and AIDS rates for Native Americans and Alaska Natives were ranked third in the United States, according to the Indian Health Service website. Their rates were lower only than the rates for African Americans and Hispanics.
Compared with Caucasians, the rates of Native Americans with HIV and AIDS is disheartening. Native Americans/Alaska Natives overall have a 30 percent higher rate of infection, and men have a 50 percent higher rate, according to the Office of Minority Health.
“People who already know they have the disease are getting excellent care, but what we're really worried about are the patients who don't know they have the virus,” said Dr. Jonathan Iralu, chief clinical consultant for infectious diseases at Gallup Indian Medical Center.
The center is just one of the hospitals on the Navajo Nation that is working to aggressively screen its patients for HIV, an effort that has heightened since the Navajo Nation Council passed the Navajo Nation HIV/AIDS Act in 2011. The act is meant to support strides in research, prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS on the reservation.
A lack of education and discussion is thought to contribute to the disturbing trend. Additionally, the abundance of alcoholism and drug use among Native Americans worsens it.
For more information on HIV and AIDS on the Navajo Nation, or to find local resources, call the Navajo Nation Health Education Program in Window Rock, Ariz., at 928-871-6258.