HAWAI`I CENTER FOR AIDS: Native Hawaiians are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed for HIV/AIDS

As World AIDS Day approaches on December 1 – there is news from the Hawai`i Center for AIDS at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), University of Hawai`i Mānoa. Researchers have found that HIV/AIDS is being diagnosed in Native Hawaiians more than twice as often as Caucasians, and that Native Hawaiians with HIV/AIDS are three times more likely to need hospitalization.

Some 3,000 people in Hawai`i live with HIV/AIDS. One in four of them, about 25%, don’t even realize they are carrying the virus. In its latest analysis of HIV/AIDS data, the Hawai`i Center for AIDS reports HIV/AIDS is of particular concern to our Native Hawaiian population.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV infection as compared to the Caucasian population. Recent preliminary analysis using the state-wide Hawai`i Health Information Corporation (HHIC) database also suggest that HIV-infected Native Hawaiians are three times more likely to be hospitalized compared to Caucasians.

Dr. Jason Barbour and Dr. Cecilia Shikuma of JABSOM’s Hawai`i Center for AIDS

“It is incredibly important, therefore, for Native Hawaiians — and really for everyone — who believes they might have been exposed to HIV/AIDS to get tested,” said Dr. Cecilia Shikuma, Director of the Hawai`i Center for AIDS. “Because HIV/AIDS symptoms don’t appear until the disease is well underway”, Shikuma said, “it is extremely important to get the word out for people to take advantage of free testing which is offered by the State of Hawai`i”.

The free, anonymous and confidential tests are available in counties statewide. For a list of where to go, see STD/AIDS PREVENTION BRANCH.

Though there is still no cure, progress has been made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS since the disease was discovered more than three decades ago. The 2012 theme of World AIDS Day is ‘Getting to Zero’ in Hawai`i”. The goal is “zero” new HIV infections, and “zero” patients dying from HIV-related causes. Dr. Jason Barbour of the Hawai`i Center for AIDS is delivering a research report to the community focusing on recent progress towards ‘Curing AIDS’.

With its oldest sufferers now in their 40’s, scientists are finding other health complications are cropping up for them, such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer. Dr. Shikuma believes that aging of the immune system plays a big role in causing these complications, and that HIV may be causing the immune system to age more rapidly.

“In our local HIV-infected population over the age of 40, 27% have evidence of diabetes or pre-diabetes, 56% show early signs of hardening of the arteries, and 54% have some memory problems,” according to Dr. Shikuma.

HIV Immunologist Dr. Jason Barbour of the Hawai`i Center for AIDS

According to HIV Immunologist Dr. Jason Barbour, “Chronic inflammation caused by the HIV virus may be responsible for the chronic complications of HIV. Finding ways to deal with such inflammation may lead to a ‘functional cure’, allowing HIV infected individuals to live long productive lives without the added long term consequences of HIV.”

Barbour joined the Hawai`i Center for AIDS at the University of Hawai`i in 2011.

Early Days 

JABSOM’s Hawai`i Center for AIDS was established in 1990, and collaborates with the Hawai`i State Department of Health and The Life Foundation as well as with international researchers to fight HIV/AIDS. The Center treats 400 residents of O’ahu and the neighbor islands every year at its Clint Spencer Clinic at Leahi Hospital. Care is focused on HIV patients with complex medical problems and those without health insurance.

In 2007, the Hawai`i Sate Legislature provided $800,000 to the AIDS program. That investment has paid off. In addition to treating the sick, the program has expanded its research and funding base, adding more researchers, developing immunovirology and molecular biology laboratories, and successfully obtaining multiple funding grants from the National Institutes of Health. As with all programs throughout the John A. Burns School of Medicine, researchers at the Center for AIDS investigate all aspects of disease, with an added emphasis on learning what particular problems Hawai`i’s people suffer, and how they can be addressed.

As of 2011, there had been 1,891 confirmed AIDS deaths in Hawai’i.

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