The message that Janet Cleveland, Deputy Director for Prevention Programs, Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is pushing toward women for National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day this Saturday is a simple one: knowing your status is a right.
“I want Black women to know they are worthy. They deserve good health to protect their bodies. We have the right to be healthy and protect our bodies. We have a right to get the facts,” Cleveland said in an interview.
Given the statistics surrounding women and HIV/AIDS, it’s a right that every woman, particularly African-American women, should exercise immediately.
More than 290,000 women in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS. Studies show that women tend to face greater gaps when it comes to accessing care. For Black women, the figures are even more depressing. One in 32 Black women will contract HIV/AIDS in their lifetime. Black women currently make up 60 percent of new infections and 13 percent of the total AIDS epidemic.
Even more startling is that heterosexual Black women have the second highest rate of new infections behind only gay and bisexual men. They contract the disease at 15 times the rate of white women, “Oftentimes, many Black women underestimate their risk. They engage in high-risk behavior but don’t realize their risk,” said Cleveland.
Some of the factors increasing the HIV/AIDS risk for Black women include lack of access to health care and the inability to sometimes negotiate safer sex because of financial dependence on a sexual partner. In addition, because Black men have higher rates of incarceration, which can lead to concurrent relationships and the higher prevalence of AIDS in the Black community, the chances of infection are higher with each sexual encounter.
“And then there is basic stigma, fear, and misinformation,” Cleveland said of Black women’s increased risk. “It’s complex and there are a myriad of factors.”
One factor the CDC is trying to emphasize for National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day is the importance of getting tested and knowing ones’ HIV/AIDS status. In conjunction with National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, the CDC has also launched Take Charge Take the Test, aimed to get Black women ages 18 to 34 in 10 cities with large Black populations, such as Memphis and Newark, to get tested to learn their status.
“In the fight against HIV nothing is more critical than getting tested. Knowing whether you are positive or negative can save your life,” said Cleveland. “If you are negative, there’s a peace of mind and you can focus on staying HIV-free. If they are positive, they can get the care they need and protect their health. I can’t say enough how critical it is to know their status.”
And reaching women may be the key to stopping this epidemic in the Black community.
“If we reach women we know impact families. It really takes all of us to end the epidemic,” said Cleveland.
“We’ve got to get to talking as women with our daughters, sisters and mothers about knowing our status and protecting our health. We have to know our partners’ status and insist on safe sex to protect our health. We have to speak out against the stigma and the fear. As a nation, we have to tackle the complex social and environmental issues that place African-American women at greater risk,” Cleveland added.
For more information on getting tested, go to www.HIVtest.org or call 1-800-CDC-INFO.