|photo courtesy of ncbcp.org|
Originally posted September 17-23, 2008, The Globe Newspaper (Revised June 2011)
Before writing this article I’d received an email from a Globe reader employed with the US. Department of Health and Human Services. Specifically, her work focuses on health promotion within the area of women’s health and HIV/AIDS, and at that time she was working with the National HIV Testing Mobilization Campaign, which “encourages all communities across the country to know their HIV status and get tested for HIV.” I was provided with statistics involving Black women and HIV/AIDS. These statistics were not good, not good at all. I am hoping that by resharing this information with you that you take more seriously this epidemic; understand its impact on our community, and do what it takes to turn this around. The following data was compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), whose research found that “Women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. They also concluded that HIV infection was:
• The leading cause of death for African American women aged 25-34 years;
• 3rd leading cause of death for African American women aged 35-44 years and;
• 4th leading cause of death for African American women aged 45-54 years.
Cancer and heart disease were the only other diseases that cause more deaths among women. And, guess what? We’re disproportionately ahead of other races/ethnic groups when it comes to dying from these diseases too.
So let me stop here for a moment to reflect on the aforementioned bullet points, specifically, the last one noting women between the ages of 45-54 dying of the disease. This hits home for me. I am in that age range and this fact is disturbing. They all are. In fact, among my peer group, some thirty years ago this group was not prominent in the early HIV/AIDS data, but now it is, according to an article by Michael Anft in AARP magazine, titled, AIDS AT 30 , “ [HIV/AIDS is] increasingly a disease of older people, who make up the fastest segment of the HIV-positive population.” AIDS is turning gray.
Obviously some of us do not get wiser as we age. This is not a criticism. Just an observation. While many women our age are taking strides at living healthier lives, some are still in the dark (either knowingly or unconsciously) about what we must do to protect ourselves. Knowledge is power. Yet these figures would indicate that we are lacking both, as Anft informs that, “Of the estimated 1.1 million Americans with HIV, some 407,000 are over 50; by 2017, half of the total HIV-positive population will be over 50.” Take a deep breath. Shake your head. But recognize. Here is some knowledge for ya. How will you use it to gain power over your body and make decisions about how to responsibly engage in safe sexual practices?
But the big, ugly picture is this, according to the AARP article: “Black women are nearly 20 times more likely to get HIV than white women, and black people make up half of U.S. AIDS deaths each year, though they represent only 14 percent of the population.” Now chew on that for a sec while I return to more bullet points from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as if to add insult to injury:
• Black women also make up 64% of diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases (49.9 per 100,000 women), 24 times the rate for white women (2.1 per 100,000). Alarming. Yes.
With respect to the high-risk factors and barriers to prevention for women, the CDC reports that:
• Women may be unaware of their male partner’s risk factors for HIV infection- such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, sex with men, or injection drug use.
• Men who engage in sex both with men and women can acquire HIV from a male partner and then transmit the virus to female partners.
• 65% of the young men who had ever had sex with men also reported [having] sex with women.
However, “women who have sex only with women and who have no other risk factors…are at very low risk for HIV infection.”
Consequently, certain attitudes, behaviors, and health factors can put us at higher risks of contracting HIV/AIDS, such as believing in the stereotype that this disease is a gay white man’s disease; we’re not immune nor are we invincible. Abusing drugs or alcohol can lower inhibitions and lead to the practice of having unprotected sex. And, if you have, or your partner has another sexually transmitted infection (STI) like syphilis or gonorrhea, the chances of acquiring or transmitting HIV/AIDS are greatly increased. Other factors to consider are the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic issues, with nearly 1 in 4 Blacks living in poverty, having limited access to quality health care, unemployed or receiving public assistance, dependence on a male partner for financial support, and/or low self-esteem all contribute to the risk.
Bottom line: too many Black women (second only to Black men) are at risk of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. It is critical that we take this issue seriously. Critical that we question the sexual history and practices of our partners because we cannot afford to “assume that [our] partner or past partners are not infected.” One’s appearance cannot tell you whether or not someone is a carrier of the virus; looks certainly can be deceiving. It is also important for Black women not to believe that they are not vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, and equally important for us to believe that we have power over our bodies and our sexual lives. We must insist that our male partner wear a condom and be ready to provide him with one if he does not provide his own. At the same time, our men must be willing to honor and respect our need and our right to protect ourselves against HIV/AIDS or any other STD. We must love each other and ourselves not to want to engage in high-risk sexual behavior, not to play this game of sexual-roulette because it is a game that could prove deadly. And just like any other health issue, we must be proactive about our approach to taking better care of ourselves. Getting tested is a positive and powerful first step. Saying no to unhealthy sexual practices is even better.
In Alameda County, there are many testing sites that provide quick, confidential and easy testing. You can go to Get Screened Oakland for a list of organizations, hospitals, and clinics including Highland General Hospital and the AIDS Project East Bay in Oakland. Cal-PEP, among other testing sites offer Rapid Testing (RT) that provide test results in 20 minutes. Another “reliable on-line resource for health information” is Health Finder. To become involved in advocacy efforts around this issue, an organization doing phenomenal work is Women Organized to Respond to Life Threatening Disease (WORLD), an information and support network, run by, for and about women living with HIV/AIDS. Their resources include fact sheets, downloadable materials and other organizations doing HIV/AIDS advocacy/service work in and outside of California.
Sistahs, let’s stay strong, healthy, wise, and real. We need to respond to this crisis as a community because we are, in so many ways, connected to each other. And for God’s sake, get tested! Thanks to Sheila James for planting the seed leading me to write this article.