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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

National Women’s and Girls’ HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

March 10th marked the annual National Women’s and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It seemed to be appropriate to commemorate this day during Women’s History Month. Women are making history, especially women of color, sadly in regards to the number of new cases of HIV/AIDS.

According to the CDC in 2007, more than 25 percent of diagnoses of HIV infection in the United States were among women and girls aged 13 years and older. The numbers are unsettling: More than 278,000 women and adolescent girls in this country are living with HIV; and almost 94,000 American women and girls with AIDS have died since the epidemic began.

Women and girls of color—especially black women and girls—bear a disproportionately heavy burden of HIV/AIDS. In 2007, for female adults and adolescents, the rate of HIV/AIDS diagnoses for black females was nearly 20 times as high as the rate for white females and nearly 4 times as high as the rate for Hispanic/Latino females. Relatively few cases were diagnosed among Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander females, although the rates for these groups were higher than the rate for white females.

HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death among African American women ages 25-34 and the third leading cause for ages 35-44 in 2002. Heterosexual contact or injection drug use is the primary modes of transmission of HIV for women across racial/ethnic groups.

These statistics are downright depressing. I am often asked why the number of African American women living with HIV/AIDS is so high. If you look at the history of HIV we may find the answers. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was defined for the first time in 1982 according to the UNAIDS’ fact sheet “Twenty years of HIV/AIDS.” In that year three modes of transmission were identified: blood transfusion, mother–to-daughter and sexual intercourse. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus was identified as the cause of AIDS in 1983 and in that same year an epidemic of AIDS was reported in Africa. In Africa most of those infected were heterosexual. In most parts of the world the disease was portrayed as a disease that was only affecting “gay white men.” AIDS is not now nor ever has been just a “gay white man’s disease.” Since the focus was on a certain type of lifestyle, the thought of women being infected was often overlooked.

What really amazes me is the fact that there was a time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that African-American women who worked in the home health field were the main ones taking care of those persons living with AIDS. If you think about the history of this country and the role African American women played from slavery to the civil rights era they were always caring for other people while being forced to neglect their our families. But somehow many of them managed to keep their families together as much as possible.

AIDS works along with domestic violence, substance abuse, lack of education and access to health care, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and yes, low self-esteem to wreak havoc on the African American community. Since African American women are the heads of the household in many families, whatever affects them will affect the family. African American women have often been trailblazers in education, science and politics. What will happen if we don’t address the HIV in the African American community? We are in danger of losing generations of women who will never have a chance to make history.

Thankfully there is some good news. Women of color are now more involved with the research treatment and prevention of HIV. We need more women in clinical trials because medications work differently in women. I am glad to know that African American women of all age groups are speaking out about HIV. Now I realize that everyone may not agree with how and why women are speaking out but at least they are doing something.

My hope and prayer is that women will take time to talk about the treatment and prevention of the disease. Everyone should get tested regardless of your martial status. Make getting tested for HIV apart of your annual check up. If you know someone living with HIV encourage him or her to seek treatment. This is our chance to improve the lives of future generations of women. Remember knowledge equals life, ignorance equals death.