The AIDS epidemic has spread to every corner of the globe and prevention is the primary defense. But in some cultures, like those in some of Arlington's African immigrant communities, the message of AIDS prevention and awareness can run into centuries old taboos surrounding sex and disease.
To break through these barriers, the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington is sponsoring a new HIV/AIDS outreach program tailored to the diverse cultural needs of the African community.
Under a grant of more than $136,000 from the Centers for Disease Control, the ECDC is creating a program that will couple education with individual counseling in an effort to curtail the spread of HIV. By promoting safe sex and opening a dialogue about the disease, project manager Odile Attiglah said the initiative will help to foster AIDS awareness in way that works within the community's cultural norms.
"First we are going to go into the community and inquire about how we should approach this issue to ensure that we are respectful of the different cultures," she said Friday. "We will be using a type of role-playing model, where the participants will create a story to explain AIDS issues. We give them the information and they create the story as a way to help get them talking about it."
Attiglah added that the outreach seminars the program will use are divided along gender and age lines to ensure the participants are comfortable talking about AIDS.
"As African women, we don't discuss sexual matters openly," she explained. "That's part of why we won't have classes that are of mixed gender."
Cultural considerations are a key aspect to the program, which will serve Africans throughout the D.C. metro area, a diverse group of nationalities spanning the whole of the African continent. Gennene Mengistu, the program's director, said by using each community's cultural mandates the program can reach people who otherwise would not receive the information they need.
"One of the most important aspects is the question of culture," he said. "By approaching people in their language and within what they see as culturally acceptable, our message will penetrate into the community."
The African Community, Mengistu said, is strictly conservative when it comes any discussion of sex, a taboo that leaves many in the dark when it comes to understanding HIV/AIDS. One troublesome aspect of educating the community, he said, is a pervasive generation gap.
"The older generation often won't discuss sexual matters with their children," he said. "In this country, the youth tend to be more aware because of education."
The program will also give those in the African community the chance to meet with counselors on a one-to-one basis and, if necessary, be referred to a doctor for an AIDS test.
"Our role is largely to educate them on the available resources in their community," Attiglah said.
Mengistu added that the social stigma surrounding HIV is prevalent in the African community and can present its own obstacles when it comes to educating the public.
"Stigma is stigma, that's why a lot of people don't feel comfortable talking about it publicly but in these programs, there is also the false assumption that a person must have the disease if he's there at the meeting."
The concept of preventative medicine can also present its own problems.
"Many depend on cures rather than prevention. In Africa, most only go to a doctor if they're sick," Attiglah explained.
Both Mengistu and Attiglah stressed that the outreach program is for everyone in the African community, not only those from Ethiopia. ECDC President, Tsehaye Teferra said the program is a vital part of the council's health education work.
"It is very essential," he said "AIDS is widely spread in Africa and in the African community here. We expect to reach as many people as possible."
The program will include the translation of educational materials in the various languages of the African Community including Arabic, French and Amaric. The council also broadcasts health information in a segment of its weekly radio show on 1120 AM.
"The council is heavily involved in health education and promotion," Teferra said. "For instance, we have done much work on tobacco use prevention. As people dealing with a community that has a variety of needs, we identified AIDS as one of our main priorities."