Inupiat woman shares story of AIDS tragedy

Posted: Monday, December 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Health officials trying to stem the spread of AIDS among Alaska Natives are hoping an Inupiat woman will help to crack the wall of silence about the virus in rural Alaska.

Selina Moose is traveling from village to village telling the story of her 40-year-old brother, who discovered he was in the advanced stages of the disease last summer.

The family decided to go public, sharing the news with their village of 400 in the NANA region.

They held a village meeting. Shocked at first, people came to respect their honesty, especially the elders, health officials said.

''HIV can wipe a village out,'' Moose told a crowd at the Alaska Native Heritage Center Saturday to mark World AIDS Day, which was Sunday. ''We had to tell our people because not telling them meant extinction.''

Today, her brother is battling AIDS without medication, at home. He needs a walker to get around.

But he's getting visits from friends and eating local foods, Moose said.

Her story could go a long way, health officials said at Saturday's event, because AIDS isn't discussed much among Alaska Natives.

Natives often don't discuss sexuality openly, complicating efforts to raise awareness of prevention and treatment, said Diane Johnson-Van Parijs, development director of the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association.

Since the state began keeping track, Alaska Natives have accounted for nearly a quarter of the roughly 820 reported cases of people who have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Alaska Natives make up about 16 percent of the state's population.

More than 130 people have died of AIDS in Alaska.

Most HIV cases are among urban Natives, said Michael Covone, HIV/AIDs prevention program manager for the Alaska Native Health Board.

But nobody knows how big the problem is in villages because nobody wants to talk about it, Covone said.

That's what makes Selina Moose's story so significant, Covone said.

''What Selina has done is open discussion. ... If every Alaska family did this, HIV would be a very different disease.''

To combat the stigma of AIDS in rural Alaska, the Native health board has created a series of public service announcements in English and in Yupik.

The ads liken AIDS to earlier diseases brought to Native communities by Europeans, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza.

Desiree Forbes, who grew up in Toksook Bay, said she had heard only rumors about AIDS there. Maybe a woman died of it recently, she had heard, or maybe it was something else.

People don't talk about such things much, she said. ''Most of us don't know how to approach talking about it. We're not as open as most people.''

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