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Racial Disparities in Health Care Headlines UVA Symposium

Charlottesville, Va.

A nine-member panel discussion on HIV/AIDS by community activists and health care providers last week ended the three-day Symposium on Race and Society hosted by the University of Virginia Health System designed to call attention to the issue of health disparities in the United States.

A crowd of about 150 community members, and UVA faculty and students filled Jordan Hall Conference Center Auditorium to hear the professionals field questions such as what barriers prevent people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS from taking their medication. What inhibited people with a diagnosis from disclosing their disease to others? And how to fight the secrecy that surrounds the disease and helps it spread throughout the community?

“It never occurred to me not to admit that I tested HIV positive,” said Joan Walker, a community health advocate. “It was a diagnosis, not a label. I am not HIV positive, I tested HIV positive.”

Her response drew applause from the crowd as she expressed an attitude fairly uncommon among those with the diagnosis. Dr. Nan Brown, who leads a prison HIV/AIDS support group, told of clients who refused to get in line to collect their medication for fear that their fellow inmates would learn of their diagnosis.

“Some would talk to me privately but only on the condition that I not say anything to the others,” Brown told the audience. “They were so afraid of the stigma associated with the disease.”

Each panel member had similar tales of people who would do anything, even die, before letting people know about their disease. Walker said that when she started talking about her diagnosis, some people admitted to being afraid of her. But as she explained the condition, that fear went away. One friend asked her to speak about HIV/AIDS at his church.

“After my talk, people were hugging me, thanking me and saying, ‘I am so glad that you came,’” Walker said, admitting that she was puzzled by the reception. “Why are you glad I’m here, I asked. And they started telling me about friends and family members who were ostracized because of being HIV positive.”

Dawn Averit Bridge, the founder of The Well Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the human cost of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic through a comprehensive focus on women, was diagnosed with HIV 19 years ago. She was the first to speak about the barriers that inhibit patients with HIV/AIDS from taking their medication as prescribed. She takes 24 pills a day including vitamins.

“It is a significant commitment,” Bridge said. “It is something that must be done every day, 365 days a year, and you must take the pills forever. It has to be made as important as picking your child up from school or putting dinner on the table.”

The first day of the symposium talks focused on cancer and diabetes, two diseases, like HIV/AIDS, that affect minority and poor patients disproportionately to the general populations. Dr. Chester Pierce, professor of education and psychiatry emeritus at Harvard University, was presented with the 2007 Vivian Pinn Distinguished Lecturer’s Award after his lecture “Disparity Vulnerability.”

The three-day symposium started with a two-hour candlelight vigil on the steps of the Rotunda. At the height of the event nearly 200 community members, UVA staff and students gathered to honor the estimated 100,000 plus minority and poor people who die unnecessarily in the United States due to disparities in health care with music, speeches, and white carnations.

“We have to give real meaning to this loss of life,” said Dr. Norman Oliver, director of the University of Virginia Center on Health Disparities and an organizer of the symposium. “We have people dying who shouldn’t be.”

– by Kathy Nixon


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