Tina Knowles-Lawson On The Loss That Inspired Her HIV Awareness Work: ‘I Lost My Closest Friend’
Courtesy of ViiV Healthcare

We need to talk more about HIV prevention. 

For years, Black women in the U.S. have been diagnosed with HIV at disproportionately higher rates when compared to white and Hispanic/Latina women, and account for six in 10 new HIV infections among women.

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Harmful stigmas surrounding those living with HIV have continued to persist over the decades due to race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. These factors ultimately affect the lives of people with the virus and can present further moments of discrimination when seeking to obtain proper medical care, housing, and employment. 

Reducing these disparities and combating persisting misconceptions is vital to achieving health equity and can begin with proper education around HIV facts and statistics. In an effort to bring communities together to de-stigmatize and normalize open conversations around HIV prevention, ViiV Healthcare, the only pharmaceutical company solely focused on HIV, has launched a new campaign entitled Me in You, You in Me

Courtesy of ViiV Healthcare

The PSA campaign illustrates that while HIV prevention is an individual act, we can all find our role in overcoming bias surrounding conversations about it. To help spread the word, ViiV Healthcare has tapped philanthropist Tina Knowles-Lawson to be a part of the campaign. This effort is close to her heart.

“I lost my closest friend, my nephew Johnny, to HIV before there were any drugs that could work effectively or any prevention medication,” she tells ESSENCE. 

With that loss, Lawson understands the importance of destigmatizing conversations around the condition with a thought-provoking, yet “non-judgmental” approach. She encourages those with friends or relatives living with HIV to participate in normalizing prevention conversations by creating safe spaces for discourse to take place.

“Have an open dialogue about it with at least one person,” she shares. “This could be an effective way to keep the conversation going.”

For Black women, having these conversations is essential to their overall health and livelihood. According to a report by KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), while Black women only make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 43 percent of HIV diagnoses, 42 percent of people estimated to be living with HIV disease, and 44 percent of deaths among people with HIV against any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S.

With these staggering numbers in mind, Lawson stressed the importance of Black women prioritizing their sexual health and understanding the facts surrounding HIV. “I would encourage Black women to educate themselves and to take precautions when having sex,” she shares. While there is currently no cure or vaccine for HIV, scientific advancements have made it possible to manage the virus. “Look into the preventative medicines that are available because they are mostly used by white men,” she encourages.

Partnering with the Me in You, You in Me campaign has widened Lawson’s perspective of how HIV has impacted marginalized communities and she hopes that the information she’s gained will serve as a means to debunk myths and reach Black women in the process. “[The campaign] was very educational for me,” she says. “For some reason, I thought that the number of Black women who were affected had decreased drastically. But in this campaign, I found out that we are still the most affected by this disease and are mostly infected by our [partners].”  

Outside of her advocacy work, Lawson continues to focus on amplifying aspects of the Black experience in other ways. And with Juneteenth just around the corner, the Galveston native reflected on how she’s celebrated the holiday in the past and what she looks forward to in the future.

“In my hometown of Galveston, Texas, my family always celebrated Juneteenth. There was always a barbecue on the beach with friends and family getting together drinking, eating and laughing,” she recalls. 

“We knew the real truth; that we were not liberated on July 4, so [Independence Day] never held significance for us,” Lawson adds. “I feel blessed to have had these experiences and I continue those traditions today with family and friends.” 

The Me in You, You in Me campaign outreach is centered on four communities – Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. To learn more about the campaign and the resources ViiV offers, go to HIVpreventionforus.com.