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African delegation adds Napa to its HIV/AIDS research trip

African delegation adds Napa to its HIV/AIDS research trip

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When it comes to AIDS and HIV prevention, African health and university officials speak the same language as their American counterparts.

A delegation of six African officials Tuesday wound up a whirlwind five-stop U.S. tour with a day-long visit to Napa and Solano counties as guests of the Napa Solano Health Project. The final stop was for wine tasting at Beringer Estates in St. Helena. Today, they were headed to Washington, D.C., then back to Botswana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, and Swaziland.

"We learned a lot here," said Dr. Cisco Meshack Magula, the acting vice chancellor of the University of Swaziland.

He said the HIV infection rate in southern Africa is very high. "In my country 38.6 percent of the population is infected." Most of the infected people fall between ages 20 to 30, he said.

Magula, who was educated in Canada and at the University of South Africa, said that takes a terrible toll on his small nation of 1.1 million. Magula said he hopes to establish a university foundation to help fund HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs in his homeland.

While visiting locally and in Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Tucson, Ariz., he met with university officials who had HIV/AIDS programs in place. "I want to learn new strategies in awareness and prevention, and am interested in youth and peer education programs," he said.

Such programs are a feature of the Napa Solano Health Project, founded in Napa in 1986 by volunteers who banded together to address the mounting pandemic.

"There are similarities in what we do in outreach and what they are trying to do in Africa," said Health Project board president Chris Edwards. "They are going around the country looking at models and hoping to learn, then apply some of the skills used in the United States."

While AIDS and HIV infection rates are by some estimates the highest in some areas of Africa, the United States also has high rates within the migrant farm labor population. Edwards said studies show the HIV infection rate "running as high as 50 percent in some of the migrant camps nationwide."

In California, where many farm laborers migrate from area to area and back and forth from Mexico to the United States, he said tracking is difficult.

"In the (migrant) camps they are very shy about talking about HIV infection. It is very difficult," he said.

The two-county project tests on the spot in farm labor camps. "If we find (somebody testing positive) we advise them on medications and give them regimen they can take back to their home country," he said.

He said the Napa-Solano group was recently honored by the Mexican government for helping to reduce the rate of infection in Mexico by providing medication and tips on how to reduce its spread.

"We also go into … jails, schools and homeless shelters," he said. "We go where people are performing the (unprotected sexual) behavior that puts them at risk."

The agency collaborates with Napa's Clinic Ole and Queen of the Valley Hospital.

"If somebody tests positive, we refer them to Clinic Ole or the (QVH) Care Network for follow-up. We go into the field to follow-up so they can stay healthy," he said.

Is there any encouraging news in the worldwide fight against the disease? "We believe so," Edwards said. "If we catch it early and get individuals on a medication regimen then the survival rate is significant. The scary part is when they go back to their home country. Medications are not always available."

He said by taking literature and information about AIDS back to their home country, many others who would otherwise be unreachable may get the life-saving message.

But with new medications prolonging life, he said, "It's true … some are going back into high risk behavior."

"The virus epidemic is global," noted Monica Creer, who manages the agency's Solano County effort.

Tuesday morning she hosted several workshops for the African visitors. "I focused on the kitchen table aspect of communication," she said. That's what she calls the face-to-face communication used to reach at-risk populations. "We have growing infection (rates) with African Americans and Hispanics," she said.

Creer said she sometimes finds doors and minds closed when trying to discuss AIDS. For example, in working with jail and prison inmates she finds many at-risk men admit to having man-to-man sex while incarcerated, but turn a blind eye to the risk because they do not consider themselves "gay." The disease, at least in the beginning, was known to be passed primarily by gay sex.

"That's not their culture," she said. "But when they get out they have sex with their wives and girlfriends and pass it on."

She also has found difficulty reaching women in cultures where female self esteem is low or beaten down.

Churches also provide barriers she said. "Some churches won't let us in talking about condoms."

The International Diplomacy Council selected the Napa Solano Health Project as part of the tour program, Edwards said, "To foster international understanding and cooperation, constructive economic connections, and peaceful interaction between peoples of the world."

He said the winery tour was at Beringer Estates because that company is a client of the project. He said the tasting was designed to "further build bridges of cultural understanding between the Napa Valley and Africa."

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