Recovering the Sacred — indigenous women’s health and HIV awareness |

Recovering the Sacred — indigenous women’s health and HIV awareness

Rebecca Chavez
Special to First Nation’s Focus
Rebecca Chavez

Editor’s Note

Beginning this month, First Nation’s Focus is publishing a monthly column from Rebecca Chavez (Western Shoshone) called “Recovering the Sacred,” focusing on various issues related to indigenous women’s health. If you have any questions or ideas for future column topics, email her at, or email us at

RENO, Nev. — Women by nature, gravitate to other women. Traditionally, chores were made easier when grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters worked together.

Women helped each other in all aspects of life: gathering and preparing food, birthing babies, caring for the young, the sick and the old. They talked, offered advice, shared stories and provided a supportive structure for other women to draw strength from. Nowadays, women are more isolated but just as busy: working, going to school and caring for children, all the while tending to the day-to-day needs of the family. Women usually make healthcare decisions for the family, but often forgo their own needs for the sake of others.

This is why discussions surrounding women’s health are important: If women do not prioritize their own health, families may suffer. By discussing women’s health concerns, it is my intention that women will join in the conversation by not only taking care of themselves but by also sharing knowledge and advice with their native sisters. March 20th is National Native American HIV Awareness Day. This month’s discussion is on HIV awareness and prevention (nothing like diving in headfirst, right?).

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks the immune system, leaving the body unable to fight off infections and infection-related cancers.

Unlike other viruses, there is no cure for HIV, so if you get it, you have it for life. HIV can be controlled with proper treatment. People can live long healthy lives without transmitting the virus to others if treatment is not delayed. If not treated, HIV can progress to AIDS (autoimmune deficiency syndrome), a much worse and potentially fatal stage of HIV. Without treatment, the life expectancy of people with AIDS is about 3 years.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread by person-to-person transmission. HIV is transmitted in certain types of body fluids such as blood, semen, rectal or vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

You can be infected with HIV if contaminated body fluids come into contact with mucus membranes or are injected directly into the bloodstream by a contaminated needle or syringe.

You cannot get HIV from casual contact such as a handshake, a hug or even a closed-mouth kiss. You also cannot get HIV from doorknobs or toilet seats.

How do I know if I have HIV?

Some people will experience flu-like symptoms 2-3 weeks after contracting HIV, but so will many other illnesses not related to HIV. The only sure way of knowing you have or don’t have HIV is by getting tested.

Where can I get tested for HIV?

Testing is available at your local IHS clinic or county health department. In the Reno-Sparks area, HOPES and Community Health Alliance also provide testing. If you are pregnant, HIV and STD testing are a part of routine prenatal lab work.

How do I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

• Understanding your sexual network. Your network includes everyone you have had sex with plus all of their partners and their partners’ partners, and so on. And while a person can contact HIV anyplace, the rates of HIV vary from zip code to zip code. So where you are having sex is important in understanding your risk.

• Communication with your partner. Getting tested and know your partner’s HIV status. This means talking to your partner about HIV testing and getting tested before sex. Simply being in a relationship does not mean you don’t have to worry about contacting HIV (His idea of monogamy might be different from yours). If your sexual network extends beyond just the two of you, get tested regularly.

• Use condoms. Unless you are planning on becoming pregnant, use condoms every time you have sex. Enough said.

I am HIV positive, how do I protect others from getting infected?

• Take antiretrovirals (ART) as prescribed to lower your viral load and decrease transmission to others.

• Use condoms correctly every time you have sex.

• Talk to your partner about taking a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to decrease their chance of becoming infected.

• If you inject drugs, don’t share needles or syringes.

I am a HIV positive and pregnant, how can I protect my baby?

• Getting treatment early in pregnancy and taking ART as prescribed is important to prevent transmission of HIV to your baby. The risk of transmission can be 2% or less if properly managed.

• The mode of delivery will be dependent on your viral load. If your viral load is high, a C-section will be recommended.

• After delivery your baby will receive ART for the first 6 weeks of life to further prevent transmission of the HIV virus.

• You should not breast feed you baby as your breast milk may contain the virus even with low viral loads.

Where can I learn more about HIV?



• O

Rebecca Chavez is a certified nurse-midwife and a women’s health care provider, an enrolled member of the Western Shoshone and a mother of two. She feels that every Native woman’s journey is a revealing story of strength, courage and wisdom. If you wish to join in the discussion, contact her at