Minneapolis Urban League adopts unique approach to reach out to African communities

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African-born people living in Minnesota make up one percent of the population; yet this group account for 11% of new HIV infections according to Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) HIV Surveillance Report 2006. As of December, 5566 person in Minnesota are assumed alive and living with HIV/AIDS of which 678 persons are African-born.

In an attempt to curb the rising rate of HIV/AIDS in the African-born communities, the Minneapolis Urban League’s African Wellness Program is aimed at preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis and reducing substance abuse among the African-born communities. The program, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Heath Services Administration (SAMHSA), focuses primarily on four African populations: Somali, Liberian, Ethiopian/Oromo and Kenyan. These groups have been identified as having the highest rates of infection among African immigrants.

“Our approach is unique,” says Abdullahi Sheikh, the program coordinator. “We’re reaching out to the African-born immigrants through the faith-based communities and Popular Opinion Leaders (POLs)”. The POLs are well respected members of the community with social leadership responsibilities and networks. The program will train them about how to prevent and reduce the transmission of these health issues to encourage behavior change in the targeted populations.”

POLs will be catalysts. They’ll share information about the transmission of HIV, hepatitis and essence of safe-sex practices. They will train the communities with the skills they’ve gained in a way that is socially and culturally accepted.

The aim of the program is to encourage people from these high-risk populations to begin talking about safe-sex practices, which are taboo within African communities, to reduce the rate at which HIV/AIDS is spread.

“There’s no doubt that unprotected sex, multiple sexual relations, alcohol and drug use (including Khat, a stimulant that’s consumed within these at-risk populations) is linked to risk behavior,” Sheikh says.

Sheikh explains that there are many reasons for the high rate of transmission in these populations: cultural taboos, shame about sexual matters, denial and stigma, limited access to health care and information and a lack of familiarity with the US health care system.

“Our first step will be the education and training of POLs,” says Sheikh.

The African Wellness Program is part of the Minneapolis Urban League’s initiative to reach out to communities of color in Minnesota disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.

To learn more about the African Wellness Program, or to attend a learning session, please contact Sheikh Abdullahi at (612) 302-3118, or via e-mail at asheikh@mul.org.

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