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Shining a Light on HIV and Black Women

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An ebony-skinned woman walks into a Brooklyn clinic for a follow-up appointment. At 48, she's a mother of two, holds a Master's degree in social work and works as an addiction medicine counselor. A recovering heroin user herself, she often talks to clinic patients about their drug abuse and illnesses. But on this particular day, she's seeking a doctor for herself. She's alone, misguided, and HIV positive.

With AIDS as the leading cause of death among Black women between 25 and 34, this woman is familiar to Dr. Beny J. Primm, Chair of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA). In fact, he sees patients who fit this bill all too often. Dedicated to fighting AIDS in African-American communities, NBLCA recently held its annual 2010 Choose Life Awards Benefit reception. Yet, despite the red carpet welcome, fancy dinner and awards presentation, many organizers still acknowledge that there is a strong need for AIDS outreach in our communities.  "We're such a small number of people in the population, but yet account for such a large number of AIDS victims," says Primm, who treats more than 1,500 African-Americans with HIV at the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation clinics in both Brooklyn and Harlem.

 Black women in the U.S. were 23 times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with AIDS in 2005, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease has also made a slow crawl to infants, with Black babies making up roughly 65 percent of HIV-infected newborns.  NBLCA President C. Virginia Fields says denial keeps HIV rates in African-American communities high.  "There's still a great deal of discrimination and stigma associated with HIV-AIDS," says Fields. "Because people associate it with sex -- whether it's heterosexual sex, sexual contact, or homosexual contact -- it's harder for many of them to get into this discussion."

An increase in anti-viral medications and technology use has caused some to believe AIDS isn't as harmful as it once was, says Juan Bailey, an infectious disease physician at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.   Having worked with AIDS patients since the 1990s, Bailey often treats women who have contracted the disease from partners who refused to get tested.  "I don't think they want to get it, but they feel that the worst case scenario is, 'Well, hey, I have medication,'" says Bailey, who recently diagnosed a 72-year-old woman with HIV. "You don't see hospitals filled with people dying from AIDS the way there used to be 20 years ago, so I think the fear factor has lessened." To debunk any myths about the illness, last year the NBLCA held the National Conversation on Black Women and HIV/AIDS in Washington D.C., where business representatives, civic leaders and community organizers talked candidly about the rates of HIV among African-American women. 

This summer, NBLCA organizers will lobby for the National Black Clergy for the Elimination of the HIV/AIDS Act of 2009, a comprehensive legislative act that urges clergy members to support HIV/AIDS education within congregations.  Currently supported by New York state senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the act calls for HIV testing, health exams, grants, and education programs to support AIDS outreach in urban communities.  "You cannot expect for this epidemic to be turned around if the resources are not going where the problems are," Fields says. "For many years the trend and people believed that the problem was just in the gay White community. That belief has shifted but the resources have not followed so we want to push for this legislation."  For more information on the NBLCA, go to nblca.org.
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