Legislators Urged to Address HIV/AIDS Among Women of Color

As rates of HIV infection in the United States continue to climb among women of color, advocacy groups for women and people with HIV/AIDS held a Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday to educate legislators on the scope of infection among women of color and urge them to address this disturbing trend.

We need to act immediately before HIV and AIDS expand their foothold among women in communities of color, said Dr. Judy Auerbach, vice president for public policy and program development at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, who moderated the briefing. To act effectively, we need to better understand the biomedical and social factors fueling this grave health disparity in the U.S.

Rates of HIV infection among women of color are disproportionate to the population, according amfAR, the Society for Womens Health Research and Womens Policy, Inc., which co-sponsored the briefing. Black, Latina, Native and Asian and Pacific Islander women represent only 29 percent of the U.S. female population, but account for 84 percent of female AIDS cases.

At the beginning of the epidemic, the stereotypical patient was a white male. Thats no longer the case, said Dr. Lynn Paxton of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the panelists. Between 2001 and 2004, black women constituted 61 percent of women infected with HIV. Black women today are 23 times more likely to have AIDS than white women, and Hispanic women are five times more likely.

In an epidemiologic overview of HIV infection among women, Paxton demonstrated that HIV infection was disproportionately higher in the South, in women and adolescents under the age of 19, and in women who were unemployed, had experienced other sexually transmitted infections, or had partners with a history of incarceration. Heterosexual intercourse, which once accounted for just a fraction of HIV infections in the earliest years of the epidemic, now explains more than two-thirds of AIDS diagnoses among women.

Dr. Adaora Adimora, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, defined the link between economic and social inequity and HIV among black women in the South, citing interrelated factors of concurrent sexual relationships, persistent poverty and the high rate of incarceration among black men in that region.

Dr. Cynthia Gomez, co-director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California at San Francisco, and Dr. Karina Walters, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work, explained that womens greater vulnerability to the virus depends on a confluence of physiological, social, economic and cultural factors, including historical experience with violence, literacy and language barriers, and lack of access to appropriate services.

Race is not the cause of HIV, Gomez said. Being Black, Latina, Native, Asian, those are not the cause; nor is being white protective.

The final speaker, Karina Andrea Danvers, director of the Connecticut AIDS Education and Training Center at the Yale School of Nursing, described her personal and professional experiences as a Latina living with HIV. Danvers reminded the audience that people can look healthy and still be infected and that stigma towards women living with AIDS often prevents them from pursuing life-saving care.

Labeling AIDS among women of color a major civil rights issue, Adimora called for increased funding to enhance diagnosis and treatment of sexual transmitted diseases, HIV testing, access to antiretroviral medication, and increased state and federal funding for the federal AIDS Drugs Assistance Program (ADAP). She urged policy makers to address the underlying socio-economic disparities linking HIV/AIDS to communities of color.

Panelists also argued in favor of more information about HIV/AIDS and sexual health directed toward women and girls, including comprehensive sex education in schools, increased health services for immigrants, improved protection against domestic and gender-based violence, and more HIV/AIDS awareness programs that specifically target heterosexual men.

We have an HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country among women of color, said Dr. Sherry Marts, vice president of scientific affairs at the Society for Womens Health Research. We need to understand why this is happening and break the cycle of infection. It can no longer be ignored.

Source: Society for Women's Health Research

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