College Student Roundtable Discusses Prevalence of HIV/AIDS An alarming report on HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., is sparking discussion about which groups are most affected by the disease and how to decrease infections. A roundtable of college students talk about how they are confronting the threats of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
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College Student Roundtable Discusses Prevalence of HIV/AIDS

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College Student Roundtable Discusses Prevalence of HIV/AIDS

College Student Roundtable Discusses Prevalence of HIV/AIDS

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Patti LaBelle with reflections on her amazing 40-year career and songs from her new holiday CD.

But first, we began the program yesterday by talking about a new report on HIV and AIDS in the district. The report offered new details about how the disease has moved beyond groups like intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men into the general population, and particularly into the African-American community.

We were reminded that the disease made its debut as an epidemic in the early '80s, when many of today's college students were born. In essence, they grew up in the age of AIDS. So we decided to bring in a small group to talk about what they know about HIV and AIDS.

Sable Nelson is senior at Howard University. She's also an intern at the National Minority AIDS Council. Tony Idugboe is also a senior at Howard University, and he's president of Howard's African Students Association. He's originally from Nigeria. They're both here with me in the studio in Washington. And joining us from NPR's Chicago bureau is Monice Purnell. She attends Kennedy-King Community College.

Welcome to you all. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. SABLE NELSON (Student, Howard University): Hi.

Ms. MONICE PURNELL (Student, Kennedy-King Community College): Hello.

Mr. TONY IDUGBOE (Student, Howard University; President, African Student Association, Howard University): Hello.

MARTIN: Now when AIDS first surfaced as an epidemic in the early 1980s, there was a sense that HIV or AIDS was a gay disease, and the recent study shows that this is clearly not true, or it's no longer true. In fact, over a quarter of newly diagnosed AIDS cases in D.C. were contracted by heterosexual sex. I wonder if you think that perception has caught up with the reality.

Do you think, Sable, that people who are - consider themselves heterosexuals or primarily have sex with people of the opposite sex know that they're at risk?

Ms. NELSON: Not at all. Because it's easier for them to associate HIV and AIDS with someone who's gay. So that way, it puts some space between them so they can't say - they feel kind of immortal about it. Well, that happened in that particular population. I don't need to be concerned. So then there's no dialogue between themselves and their partner, and they don't know - they haven't been tested themselves, and they don't want to know or even be tested with their partners.

MARTIN: Hm. Tony, what do you think?

Mr. IDUGBOE: For me, because I grew up in Africa and just came to college here, but in Africa, for example, it was never been that case where it's being like seen as a gay disease. It's always been seen as an heterosexual disease. Eighty percent of the disease infection in Africa, it's more from, like, heterosexual, and you have to raise a very minute percentage, like 2 to 3 percentage, are from, like, the gay population.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Okay, Monice, what about you? What do you think among your folks - the people that you talked to? Do you think…

Ms. PURNELL: You're right.

MARTIN: …that people know the deal?

Ms. PURNELL: From what I have observed, they feel that it's basically gays, or, I mean, just as Sable said, you know, they look at it as it's not their problem or, you know, because it's easier to remove themselves from that thought. That way, they don't have to think about it when they have sex irresponsibly many of times.

MARTIN: Do people talk about this? You know, I have to tell you, I was in college when AIDS first became understood as a distinct disease, and I remember people becoming sick. I remember people did not talk about it. There was a lot of hush-hush around it.

I was under the impression that that had changed. Monice, has that changed? Do people talk about it? Is there more education about how you get AIDS…

Ms. PURNELL: No.

MARTIN: …what you're at risk and so forth? How to protect yourself?

Ms. PURNELL: No, it's not. Actually - I'm glad you brought that up about the education, because I remember when I was in high school, we would learn some of it, but also the instructors, they taught - they would also put place in their own preconceived notions about it.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example of what you mean?

Ms. PURNELL: Oftentimes, they would say something, don't kiss someone with -you know, the instructors would say don't kiss someone with AIDS, or make sure that you don't breathe the same air they breathe. I mean, literal instructors, that were speaking like this. So for the ones that were actually taught the correct way, maybe in their household, you know, because my mom, she was a nursing major. So she taught me, you know, the correct way.

But many of them that weren't, and that was the first time hearing about it or really speaking about it in the open, they looked at it, like, oh yeah, that's true. So then they went out with this ignorant type of thought that you'd breathe the same air or you kiss someone with it, and you can get it. You know what I mean? And it was kind of like an unspoken thing…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Wow.

Ms. PURNELL: …in that community. So, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, Sable, what about you? Do you feel that your peers - whether they psychologically want to deal with the facts or not, do you think that they've been exposed to the kind of information they need?

Ms. NELSON: Not really. I mean, if you leave up to the school system, it's really not giving them all the information that they need to know. If they do have some type of a sexual education program, it's focused on making sure that you don't get pregnant. I know, me being from Milwaukee, we were always in the top three, when I was in high school, for teen pregnancies. So it was like, don't get pregnant, don't get pregnant, don't get pregnant. And oh, by the way, there are STDs, but they only really talked about the ones that you can cure. And they just briefly went over HIV and AIDS in class.

But something that was really different about my particular experience, I had a science teacher and we have, like, a sex question box. If you had any questions about things that were sexual-related, you just put it in the box and, like, for 15 minutes every Friday, she would answer questions about it. So if it wasn't for that science class, and she just being open about sexuality, realizing what a lot of us were doing at that age, I really wouldn't know half of the things that I would've known at that age.

MARTIN: Wow. That's interesting.

Tony, how was AIDS talked about when you were growing up in Nigeria? Is there an emphasis on teaching kids in the school system of how AIDS is caused, how to protect yourselves, and things of that sort?

Mr. IDUGBOE: Not really, because it was more seen like an adult disease. Not really like - more of like a (unintelligible), you know, more like among the younger population. What they normally did was more like - it was more on TV that AIDS is real, because when - at first, when it came out, a lot of people were like, you know, and I mean, quote, more of like a white man's disease. So definitely, it's not something - we've never seem anyone who had the AIDS. Probably, it's just a fallacy.

But recently, a lot of, like, the foreign organization are coming into Africa, educating more people about AIDS, because there's been an increase in the HIV and AIDS infection for particularly the youths between the age of 16 and 25. So recently, a lot of schools are starting to implement AIDS and HIV programs to enlighten people and let them know, you know, about the epidemic.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that, because Nigeria, as I understand, has nearly three million people living with HIV and AIDS - second only to South Africa. And we've talked some here about some of the politics of AIDS education, particularly how foreign organizations talk about AIDS overseas. And there's some discussion that some of it's political. You know, some of it's ideological. Some of it's religious. And do you feel that people are getting straight information, the kind of information they need to make good choices for themselves? Or is it - do you feel like you're sorting through the facts to get to the truth? Do you know what I'm saying?

Mr. IDUGBOE: No. People (unintelligible) growing up, they really give you the raw case, like, you know, they really putting, like, okay, if you get HIV, you get AIDS, definitely, you're going to die. Like, they make it like, look really, really worse than it actually seem. So that really makes a lot of people more aware about, okay, there's really something called, you know, called AIDS out there, though a lot of people do not believe in the statistics. But I want them to really see — it's not what really something that a lot of people come out and discuss more about, but it make you really seem, really, very serious.

MARTIN: Is there still a stigma attached to HIV/AIDS?

Mr. IDUGBOE: Yeah, there's still a lot of stigma attached to it. As far as for a female, if you'll talk about HIV/AIDS, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably she's a prostitute or something. She was sleeping around, prostitutions - more related. You were doing things you weren't supposed to be doing.

MARTIN: Well, what about the men?

Mr. IDUGBOE: A lot of the men do not come out openly to really discuss about it. And, I mean, once you're a man, it's easy for the men to hide it. When they die, oh, they were just like, oh they died. But it's very difficult for the women, you know, to hide it. And that's why it's more like, okay, if you're a woman - and if you're a man, they'd just be like, okay, he's a man. He's sleeping around. I mean, it's still probably the way to view women in the society than, you know, there's kind of, like, expect more from the women, you know, than the men. I mean, (unintelligible), but that's, you know, the situation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE. We're talking about HIV and AIDS with our college roundtable. They're Sable Nelson and Tony Idugboe, seniors at Howard University, and Monice Purnell, a student at Kennedy-King Community College in Chicago.

Monice, what about what Tony was saying? Do you think that there's more or less stigma attached to the degree you think, there is - oh I guess, the first question should be, do you think there's still a stigma attached to having HIV and AIDS in your community?

Ms. PURNELL: I do believe that. Yes. I believe that. I hear people, you know, talking about it, and the way that they speak of it is like it's only one way of getting it, and it's just sexually. And that's just not true. You know, and a lot of times when you try to speak to them about it, you know, they're kind of close-minded. But once again, that comes from ignorance and not enough education about it. It's something that's attacking the whole world. So it should be placed in the curricula, just as reading and writing is. I mean, it's really important to learn the facts about it.

MARTIN: Sable, I wanted to ask you - and I'm not asking people to share their personal business, but I'm wondering if there is a culture of safe sex among college students in the - you know what I mean? Do you think that college students - you know we know that teenagers often think that they're immortal, you know? We talked about that. You know, that you think, oh, nothing can happen to me. But do you think that by the time kids get to college that they grasp the message of what they need to do to protect themselves, and how the kinds of choices they make can affect them in the future?

Ms. NELSON: I think that good proportion of us college students do do what we need to do to protect ourselves, but there are a large number of us who don't. They still have that younger mentality, because they haven't been taught. They haven't been exposed to the information saying that they need to be protecting themselves in certain ways. So they may hear about condoms, but they'll be like, okay. I'll use condoms the next time. Or, you know, we've been dating for a while, so we don't need to use condoms anymore. So they, like, have this false sense of security, and they don't realize that they needed condom every time, and they need to do whatever they need to do to make sure that they don't contract this or any other STD.

MARTIN: One of the issues that we've been talking about in connection with HIV/AIDS is the ability of people to negotiate things like condom use. Do you feel that the women in your world…

Ms. NELSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …feel comfortable insisting that a man use a condom?

Ms. NELSON: Definitely. It's important that we feel empowered and we want to empower other women to let them know that they can stand up for their rights. And if they - it's something that they want, that they should stand up for it and require it. If the man doesn't bring it, you should bring your own.

MARTIN: Monice, what about you?

Ms. PURNELL: I know…

MARTIN: And I know - and tell the truth, because I know it's easy for, you know, women who said, I'm woman, hear me roar, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know. So - but, I mean, tell the truth. Do you think that most of the women in your set feel comfortable saying, you know, these are my choices. Even if their choice is abstinence, or just to say, you know, you will use a condom or we go home.

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: What do you think?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, I'll speak in the sense of my friends first. Many of them, they don't feel comfortable. I have a couple of friends that do, but many of them just feel this sense of they have to hold on to the guy, that even if, you know, he says, no, I don't want to do this and that's just it. Well, fine, then I'll just go right along and have sex without a condom or without not using protection. And I think that's really sad. Once again, the education sense of it makes them, you know, just basically feel that it's not that serious.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PURNELL: And so, no, they don't enforce it.

MARTIN: Tony, may I ask?

Mr. IDUGBOE: Yeah. I mean, from a foreign perspective, because I was a resident assistant for two years, so the guys are really very cautious about that, because we had, like, condoms in the front desk, and we're just like (unintelligible), you know come and get it. And we notice that the condoms really go real fast. You know, you see the guy who's coming and says, well, I have no - can I get some? And, you know, we do give it out to guys. Obviously, I mean, from a guy's perspective, I think the guys are really…

MARTIN: Aware.

Mr. IDUGBOE: Aware.

MARTIN: You think they're aware…

Mr. IDUGBOE: Yeah.

MARTIN: …of what they need to do? Do you think the guys are open to a woman insisting that they use it?

Mr. IDUGBOE: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of them do request that as a reasonable, like, request from a woman. And from my observation, you know, working with a lot of the guys at the dorm - I was a RA. It's like, they really respect that, you know, when they're like, you know, let's use a condom. And a lot of the guys were like, okay, yeah. I mean, I also - I'm going - I forgot to mention, because we, like, last year…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IDUGBOE: …first and second semester, we did a free HIV testing and…

MARTIN: Oh, right. Okay.

Mr. IDUGBOE: …in the first semester, 50 of the guys - and the total population is 167 - 50 of the guys came out the first time, and the second time, we had up to 70 people come out to get tested, which was really, really, really good. So, I mean, people are really starting to open up and understanding how ravaging the disease can be.

MARTIN: One of the things that the study makes clear is that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has penetrated deeply into the general population, and also very deeply into the African-American population in this country. And I just wondered if any of you had theories as to why that might be.

Sable, I know you're doing some volunteer work in this area. I wonder if you think that sexual attitudes may be different than they are for whites or other groups. Just wanted to see if you have a thought.

Ms. NELSON: It's the way that the disease is painted. We don't - we can't personalize it because we're looking at something, a kind of abstract idea. So, again, we're going with this mindset that it's not going to affect us in our community, so we don't really deal with it. We're silent about it, and being silent, it's actually killing us.

And as an African-American woman, it bothers me greatly because we have all of these programs and all of this information, but nothing's being done with it. And we have it, like, at this upper-echelon level. It's not filtering down to the grassroots community, where there is - something needs to be done and something could be done.

MARTIN: Monice, what do you think? I mean, just to point out the statistics in the District of Columbia, the survey released this week, you know, 80.7 percent of those folks living with HIV/AIDS in the district were African-American, 12 percent were white, 4.9 percent were Hispanic, 0.2 percent Asian, 1.5 percent other. And the district is, I think, what? About 60 percent African-American now. So there's clearly a disproportionate impact. So, Monice, what do you think?

Ms. PURNELL: Well, I feel that it's not being taken as seriously as it should be. You know, a lot of people are ashamed to admit that they, first of all, need to use protection. Second, to admit they may have come in contact with an STD sometime in their sexual lifetime. Also, I was a pharmacy technician at one of the county hospitals here, and we would have many of the males and females come up, and they had contracted an STD. And when we will pass out condoms for the men and for the women, they - no, that's all right. Just keep it. You know, they felt this sense of embarrassment. And I feel that that's really an issue, because you're not embarrassed to have sex, but yet you're embarrassed to use protection. I mean, you know, that makes no sense. So do something to be responsible.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's fascinating. And, finally, I wanted to ask you about one finding of the study that intrigued me. It found that the majority of new cases of HIV were among those aged 40 to 49, and over 60 percent of the people living with HIV and AIDS in the district are over 30. I was fascinated by that. I just wondered if you have any thoughts about why that might be. Do you think maybe this is an area where your generation, Tony, is just up on the facts? Or what do you think?

Mr. IDUGBOE: Yeah. I think, it's more about, you know, in general, like, information about statistics, information about, you know, how ravaging the epidemic could be has been more available to people between the age of 16 and 30 - (unintelligible) you know, college student. We have more access to information. And I guess one of the reason there's also an increase the age range between 30 to 40 has being, like, a lot of people between that age do see HIV or AIDS are more of like a young people's disease. Like, oh, probably, you know, I mean, it's for the young folks. And I just do what I got to do, and, I mean, that's been the major reason why there's been a change.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Sable?

Ms. NELSON: I think, also, a change in the sexual habits of people in that age demographic - as the divorce rates increase, people are finding new partners and they're doing different things in their relationships. So now you have this new population of people who are more sexually active with different sexual behavior, so there's a greater risk of them contracting HIV and AIDS.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Interesting. Finally, Monice, final thought from you. If there's anything you could change about the way we talk about HIV and AIDS or - what do you think might make a difference in just saving more people's lives? Any thoughts? And I know that's kind of a heavy question to end on, but I…

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: …it seems like you've thought about this a lot. I just wanted to ask.

Ms. PURNELL: I just feel that the thought of it being shameful to speak about, I would definitely change that. I mean, there's a lot of parents that don't want to speak about it. I know a lot of my friends, the people that I go to college with, they would not even talked to about sex, let alone STDs and basically, you know, AIDS. I mean, they were not spoken to about this. And by the time, they were to talk to, either they contracted some type of STD or it became like a generational cycle. The mom got pregnant at an early age, contracted STDs, and the same with their daughters and so on and so forth, as far as the males as well. So I will just change the awareness in that it's not a shameful topic. I mean, we have to be able to change this, and we can't change it if everyone feels afraid to speak about it in the open.

MARTIN: All right. Well, that certainly isn't something that we can be worried about with you.

Ms. PURNELL: Right.

MARTIN: You're certainly not afraid to talk about it.

Ms. PURNELL: No.

MARTIN: Monice Purnell is a student at Kennedy-King Community College in Chicago. She joined us from our Chicago bureau. Sable Nelson and Tony Idugboe are seniors at Howard University here in D.C. They joined us here in the studio in Washington.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PURNELL: Thank you.

Mr. IDUGBOE: Thank you.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you.

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