Why AIDS Awareness Still Matters And Why Don’t We Know Better

March 10 is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, where government agencies, healthcare providers, community organizations, people living with HIV/AIDS, and more, come together to raise awareness about the continued impact of HIV/AIDS on the lives of women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. As a woman interested in public health and activism, I always feel compelled to speak on the issue and do my little part to raise awareness. However, it’s that very desire that trips me up and smacks me in the head with writer’s block. It’s 2012 … we aren’t aware yet? What else is there to say?

I was born in the 80’s so everything from “you can’t get AIDS from a hug” to “protect yourself and get tested regularly” has been drilled into my head for years. There are national observances such as NWGHAAD, World AIDS Day, and a whole month devoted to STD testing awareness (April). Red ribbons are ubiquitous. Celebrities speak out about awareness. Subway posters implore New Yorkers to get tested. Insisting on condoms has become par for the course for one night stands, intimate relationships, and even porn. We’ve come a long way from AIDS being considered a final death sentence to something you can live with given the proper medication and care. In spite of all this, the occurrence of HIV/AIDS cases continues to grow among women, especially African-American women. The Health Department reports that “women account for about one in four new HIV/AIDS cases in the United States. Of these newly infected women, about 2 in 3 are African-American.”

It’s terribly frustrating to cite the statistics and face the fact that more women every day are infected with HIV/AIDS. If I’m having trouble writing a few paragraphs about it, imagine the struggle of actually trying to change the minds and behaviors of an entire demographic. I turned to the experts at the Office of Women’s Health to find out why African-American women in particular continue to account for new HIV/AIDS cases, outpacing women of all other races and ethnicities.

  • We’re infected with other STDs — Data shows that, compared to white women, African-American women have higher rates of common STDs such as Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis – up to 21 times higher in some cases. These infections make it easier for HIV to slide in through broken and infected skin. We’ve got to get our entire sexual health house in order if we’re to keep HIV/AIDS at bay.
  • We’re poor — 1 in 4 African-American women lives in poverty, which impacts whether we can access healthcare services and the quality of the care we receive. This means more barriers to free or low-cost testing, affordable medications, dietary and nutrition counseling, and treatment for HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Solving poverty in black communities is a big issue that we can’t take on alone. Fortunately, the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act will help  close the gap, making it possible for low-income individuals of all races to access the care they need to prevent, test, and treat HIV/AIDS. Another good reason to continue to support that legislation.
  • We date within our race – Anecdotal evidence and marriage trends show that African-American women are more likely to date and have sex with African-American men. Our brothers, though I love them dearly, aren’t doing much better in battle against HIV/AIDS, with an estimated rate of new infections more than 6.5 times as high as that of white men. Together, we make up the racial/ethnic group with the most HIV/AIDS infections of all in the United States. I’m not for or against going out and getting yourself “something new,” just be aware we’re swimming in a risky pool.
  • We still don’t know our status – This is why awareness days are still important.  Approximately 1 in 5 people living with HIV don’t know they have it! Of course this means there are people with the best of intentions, people who “look healthy”, and who probably consider themselves pretty responsible, out there exposing others to the virus that causes AIDS. Since knowing one’s status is so important, I think we need to find a way to make routine testing a reality. We can’t afford the “bliss” of ignorance any longer when it is causing others harm.

Is your sexual health house in order? Do you know how to find affordable testing services in your area? Do you hold your African-American brothers and sisters accountable for knowing their status and insisting on safer sex? Until we’re all answering in the affirmative, we’ll be holding observances to increase awareness around a disease whose prevalence in our communities really ought to be in decline.

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