Black Immigrants and HIV: Prevention and Treatment Strategies That Work

Posted in: News, News 2018
Tsion Fekadu Gurmu, Equal Justice Works Fellow, African Services Committee.

Black immigrants to the United States face unique challenges. Those challenges can make life even more difficult for people living with HIV. A Brown Bag Lunch Webinar held on March 13, 2018, by the Black AIDS Institute sought to highlight those problems and provide solutions.

The webinar was hosted by Tsion Gurmu, an Equal Justice Works fellow for the African Services Committee (ASC), an organization that assists immigrants from the African diaspora, and Zack Mohamed, Los Angeles organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization that advocates for Black immigrant communities.

Challenges Black Immigrants Face

Jamaica, Haiti and Nigeria top the list of birthplaces for Black immigrants to the United States. The webinar described some of the troubling situations that immigrants from those countries and other regions face. Among them:

  • African and Caribbean immigrants are disproportionately affected by HIV in the United States. For many, this reality is compounded by other factors, such as a lack of health insurance, low socioeconomic status and cultural belief systems that sometimes keep people from seeking health care.
  • African immigrants are more likely than people born in the United States to be diagnosed with AIDS within a year of HIV diagnosis. Not only does a late diagnosis lead to a higher mortality rate, but it also leads to an increased risk of HIV transmission. That, in turn, has an impact on the community as a whole.
  • Many immigrants receive their health care through Medicaid. Unfortunately, there is a five-year waiting period for some immigrants to receive coverage. For someone living with HIV, those five years can be devastating to his or her health. Making matters worse, the current administration continues to slash social services.
  • HIV criminalization laws either criminalize otherwise legal behavior or increase penalties for illegal conduct based on a person’s HIV status. For immigrants, HIV criminalization laws can be even more detrimental because being convicted of a crime can be grounds for deportation.


Moving Toward Solutions

Bringing an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic requires that all people’s needs be accounted for. This means that advocates must look for ways to better prevent and treat HIV among Black immigrants.

One of the most important steps we must take is to amass more knowledge about Black immigrants. Unfortunately, statistics often categorize people by race and ethnicity, lumping together American and foreign-born Blacks in one category. Without accurate information about the scope of the problems that immigrants face, it is difficult to work toward effective solutions.

A study conducted in part by the ASC found that approximately 25 percent of African immigrants acquired HIV after they arrived in the U.S.

Those results suggest that there is a need for more culturally and linguistically appropriate prevention strategies, Gurmu said. Some immigrants may not speak English, so it is important to have people who can communicate with them. Likewise, some immigrants might not be moved by prevention campaigns that are effective with people who were born in the United States. Care must be taken to make sure that the messaging of prevention and treatment campaigns appeals to those it is designed to reach.

Because African immigrants are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, it’s also important to look at some of the reasons this is so. Inadequate testing may be one reason, so advocates can look for ways to strengthen routine screening procedures. However, other issues must also be addressed, such as the lack of access that many Black immigrants have to health-care services.

Some immigrants are afraid to seek out health-care services because of fears of deportation. By partnering with legal organizations, advocates can come up with ways to protect immigrants while helping them address their health concerns.

Finally, in order to address the needs of Black immigrants, HIV advocacy cannot be one-dimensional. Rather, it must be inclusive of all ages, gender identities and sexual orientation. “HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention should be intersectional,” Mohamed said.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.