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Breaking Down Barriers: A Woman's Path to Reducing HIV Stigma in the Arab American Community

DEARBORN, Mich., Feb. 20 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- HIV/AIDS is still a taboo topic among many Arab Americans, but one determined woman is working hard to change this. For Dinah Ayna, talking about HIV and addressing the stigma among the women in her community is a challenging, yet a rewarding part of her daily routine.

According to the Arab American Institute, there are 3.5 million Arab Americans in the U.S. One-third live in Michigan, with most located in Dearborn, Michigan. As the Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Dinah does what no one else dares to do in the Arab American Community: talk to women about HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

Dinah works at ACCESS' Community Health and Research Center that promotes physical, mental, and social health of the Arab American community using a holistic, multicultural approach. At the Center, Arab Americans, Arab immigrants, and refugees from 22 countries receive state-of-the-art services that range from physicals and immunizations to education about cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.

"We need to talk about HIV in a way that doesn't conflict with people's religious beliefs and culture," says Dinah. She finds that women in her community relate to her and the cultural context in which she frames the issues. As an Arab American woman - her parents are from Palestine - her work fills a cultural gap for appropriate methods that can help Arab American women discuss HIV.

In the Arab American community, sharaf or honor is an important social aspect within families where an individual's actions can bring shame to the entire family. Many women live in fear of painful repercussions within their families and communities, and would rather live in ignorance than know they have HIV.

Dinah spends most of her day talking to Arab American women, ages 16 to 50 that come to the Center for counseling and/or medical tests. She talks with them about safe sex practices, HIV, and STI testing options. "The biggest challenges," says Dinah, "are getting women to talk about HIV and getting them tested. Many women don't want to get tested - at least not before they come back to the clinic a few times."

In 2005, women represented 26% of new AIDS diagnoses, compared to only 11% of new AIDS cases reported in 1990. Due to the increase of HIV/AIDS in women and girls, the Federal government instituted "National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day," held each year on March 10. Its efforts align with ACCESS': encouraging discussions among women about HIV prevention, testing, and care.

Since many of Dinah's clients are mothers she emphasizes to them the importance of talking with their children about HIV. "There are few things as powerful as the mother to child bond," says Dinah, "Mothers can play a critical role in educating their children about health risks and safe practices."

ACCESS' Public Health Team incorporates discussions about HIV into most medical screenings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends voluntary HIV testing during routine medical and prenatal visits for all people ages 13 to 64. Dinah is passionate about making this a reality for Arab Americans.

Dinah is a trusted resource in the community. As one of her clients stated, "Dinah really put me on the right track." Much of her success stems from helping women realize that knowing their HIV status and educating their children about HIV, is first and foremost a matter of health.

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SOURCE Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services
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