Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic first hit more than 35 years ago, we have seen some serious progress. Thanks to the advancement of antiretrovirals, the disease is no longer the inevitable death sentence it once was and because of increased awareness and HIV preventions programs, new infections among Black women have declined by 20 percent.
But even with that optimism, we can never lose sight that we are still the face of this disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent data shows that Black women account for 60 percent of new HIV diagnoses among all women living in the U.S. In addition, we are 20 times more likely to contract HIV than their white counterparts. Even worse, positive Black women have a higher death rate than women of all other races and ethnicities.
So for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) on February 7, ESSENCE spoke with Raniyah Copeland, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Black AIDS Institute to discuss what Black women need to know about HIV right now.
To Get Tested, You Have To Speak Up
The only way to know your HIV status is to get tested, but for those who seek their care in a doctor’s office, in order to get tested, you cannot assume that because they are taking your blood, they are screening you for HIV.
You have to make it clear: “I want an HIV test.”
“Because of certain opt-in laws in states across the country, your health care provider needs your verbal consent, and sometimes even written consent, to test you for HIV,” Copeland explains.
And if your health care provider gives you pushback, believing you don’t need a test because they don’t perceive you as being at-risk, be empowered and speak up.
“Let them know, knowing my status is important. It’s my body, it’s my health and I need this test,” Copeland stresses.
The Down-Low Is Not Fueling HIV
Thanks to the media turning the DL into actual fake news back in the early 2000s, to this day too many of us are adamant this is why Black women are disproportionately impacted by HIV.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, there are bisexual men and men who aren’t honest about their sexual orientation, but Copeland explains that in order to understand why HIV is so prevalent in Black America, we have to look to certain factors including racism, poverty, lack of access to quality health care, untreated sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence and power imbalances in relationships.
Not to mention, mass incarceration has taken record numbers of Black men out of the community, leaving Black women to share the same sexual partners with one another.
“It’s not about what we do, it’s about these systems of oppression that drive HIV in our community,” she says.
“So buying into the DL only tears us apart as a community and it also makes us think that we’re not at risk, which makes us even more at risk.”
There’s A Little Blue Pill That Can Help Prevent HIV
Condoms and abstinence aren’t the only ways one can prevent HIV transmission. In 2012, the FDA approved the use of AIDS medication Truvada for Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
By taking one pill a day, PrEP can decrease your risk of acquiring HIV by a whopping 92 percent.
“PrEP is highly protective and for Black women, its similar to what we do every day, in terms of taking birth control,” says Copeland.
“It’s a tool for some women that can be used for a short period in your life or for a longer extended time.”
Yet, if you haven’t heard of PrEP or falsely thought it was just for gay men, you’re not alone. Past studies have found that Black women most at-risk for HIV are least likely to know about PrEP, including a 2018 BAI/Essence Music Festival survey finding that nearly half of its respondents hadn’t heard of PrEP.
Copeland points out, “Black women were upset to find out that PrEP has been around this long and no one told them about it.”
While PrEP might not be for everyone, we shouldn’t be afraid to bring it up with our health care providers because “we deserve to know all the options that we can utilize to prevent HIV.”
In the end, Copeland wants for us to know that “as Black people, we are all at risk for HIV and we need to re-engage this issue.”
Perhaps that time is now.