Faculty member, graduate student create HIV/AIDS prevention program in Guatemala

Initiative targets young adults in the Tz'utujil Mayan community of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Coral Gables (June 03, 2013) — A University of Miami School of Communication faculty member and graduate student are on a mission this summer to improve the health of people in Guatemala.

Victoria Orrego Dunleavy, associate professor of communication studies, and Jasmine Phillips, a Ph.D. candidate at the school, are collaborating on a new study about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, targeting young adults (18 to 25 years old) in the Tz’utujil Mayan community of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

As part of their study, Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips are designing an awareness and prevention campaign based on culturally appropriate forms of communication and current knowledge of and beliefs about HIV/AIDS. It is the first study of its kind to assess attitudes and beliefs specifically about HIV/AIDS in the town of Santiago Atitlán. The Knight Center for International Media at the School of Communication is partnering on the project and will track the study’s progress on its website.

In March Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips embarked on the first phase of their project, taking an exploratory trip to Santiago Atitlán to engage stakeholders and local community leaders. During talks with these leaders they assessed the current status and capacity of HIV/AIDS intervention activities in the community and also identified partner organizations for the development of a sustainable HIV/AIDS prevention communication program.

Santiago Atitlán is in the Lake Atitlán region in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. People within this community are indigenous Maya who speak Tz’utujil and are very conservative and religious, which makes this topic all the more sensitive. Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips will tailor all content so that the messages are culturally appropriate and elicit comprehension. The target group is more progressive—many speak Spanish as well as Tz’utujil. Many use social media.

While in Guatemala, Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips met a group of young people who produce Yo respondo y tu? The weekly radio show covers topics of local social and health relevance. The group is deeply committed to the welfare of their community and its inhabitants. Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips were invited on the show to share the focus of their study.

Scholarly reports indicate Mayan cultural groups comprise about 40 to 60 percent of the total population of Guatemala but fair worse than Ladinos (non-indigenous Guatemalans) by almost every health and economic measure. According to the 2012 Pan American Health Organization report on Guatemala, there is a large correlation between ethnicity and poverty; indigenous people are more likely than Ladinos to live in poverty, which correlates to unequal access to health care.

Since the indigenous population is vulnerable across so many aspects of health and wellness, it is important to look at their vulnerability in regard to HIV. The government agency, USAID Guatemala, reports that HIV is mainly confined to Ladino and urban sects, but the Mayan communities might be on the verge of an increased infection rate. Though the prevalence among the Maya is not cause for present alarm, UK-based HIV charity Avert warns that if susceptibility to HIV is not addressed now, the consequences could be detrimental because of misinformation and cultural norms that stigmatize those living with HIV.

In July Orrego Dunleavy and Phillips will conduct qualitative interviews with young adults, ages 18 to 25, living in Santiago Atitlán. This age group generally engages in riskier behavior than other age groups. The participants will complete an oral survey that will be audiotaped. The participants will not undergo any tests or procedures and will not be asked about their HIV status. The survey questions are derived from standard surveys: the behavioral surveillance survey, recommended by the World Health Organization for conducting research on populations at risk for HIV; and the AIDS Indicators Survey, widely used by the Pan American Health Organization.

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