An epidemic once referred to as “a gay white man’s disease” is now taking its toll on black women.

Today the AIDS virus has found its way into the heart of many black communities, especially in the South, and it is eating away at the life source of the African American family: the black woman. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), black women are 25 times more likely to contract AIDS than Caucasian women. Furthermore, African American women now comprise 34% of new AIDS cases in the U.S., making them the most affected group of AIDS victims in the nation.

AIDS is the number one cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25 and 34, according to All About Black Health.com. Our mothers, daughters and sisters are suffering through “endless rounds of doctor visits, night sweats, debilitating medications, body-numbing fatigue” and ultimately death, the Web site reports.

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 63% of all female AIDS cases in the U.S. as of 2001 were African American women, and HIV infects one in 160 African American women.

Taking Action in Florida

Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation also indicates that in 2001, Florida was the state with the second largest population of African Americans estimated to be living with AIDS—nearly 20,000 people. (New York was at number one with 27,080 black AIDS patients.) Faced with this grim statistic, many state, county and local health agencies here in Florida are doing aggressive outreach to address the crisis of AIDS in the black community.

Patricia Colson is an African American woman living with HIV. She was diagnosed in 2001. Today Colson is involved in many community outreach programs in the Gainesville, Fla., area as an AIDS advocate for the Gainesville Health Department. She gives talks to students and other at-risk groups about the dangers of drug addiction and how it can increase the risk of contracting HIV. She says she was addicted to crack cocaine for 17 years and her drug addiction drove her to prostitution.

 

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“I share my story by going to drug rehab centers, churches and jails,” says Colson. “Many people have this stigma [that] if you have AIDS, then you’re dirty. My family was going to give me a separate spoon and my own cup.” By helping people see the “real,” human face of HIV, she hopes to spread the facts about AIDS and eliminate misconceptions in the classroom and in inner city neighborhoods.

“In the African American community, we are dying,” she says. “More and more of us are becoming infected.”

Another agency that is working to combat the spread of AIDS among African American women in the Gainesville area is the Alachua County Health Department. Gay Koehler-Sides is the department’s HIV/AIDS Human Services Program consultant. Her office conducts various screening and prevention programs that include HIV testing in jails and at the health department, and distributing condoms at St. Francis House, a non-profit organization that provides services to homeless people in Alachua County. The department also participates in National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

“We offer video-based [education] programs geared toward heterosexual black females,” says Koehler-Sides. “I believe poverty and lack of education go hand in hand. If we look at the statistics, the higher a person’s education, the [better] that person’s health.”

The Causes Behind the Crisis

According to the CDC, one of the main reasons for the “feminization of AIDS” and its disproportionately high occurrence among black women is the lifestyle of many African Americans. Poverty, unprotected sex, intravenous drug use and the lack of AIDS awareness in the black community are all significant factors contributing to the expansion of the disease.

Nearly 30% of Americans living in poverty are African American women, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. And a recent report in Ebony magazine confirms that many black women with AIDS are intravenous drug users or sex partners of intravenous drug users. Many women also contract HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex with an infected person. The lack of women’s empowerment in regard to “condom negotiation” with their male sexual partners is a leading cause of the proliferation of the disease in black women.

AIDS education programs, affordable medical care and effective social programs, as well as increased funding for HIV/AIDS research, can all make a difference in helping black communities learn from—rather than suffer through—the AIDS crisis, according to the Center for International Development at Harvard University. Some examples of successful educational initiatives in various parts of the country are Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues (BEBASHI) in Philadelphia, The Minority Task Force on AIDS (MTFA) in New York City—whose programs reach about 10,000 people each year—and telephone helplines such as the Florida Department of Health’s Florida HIV/AIDS Hotline.

“AIDS Doesn’t Discriminate”

Addressing the alarming rise in HIV and AIDS rates among African American women must become one of our country’s top public health priorities. But even though the face of AIDS in America today is more and more likely to be that of a black female, we must be careful not to stereotype AIDS as “a black women’s disease.”

Michael Rajner is a coordinator for the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA), a diverse national activist coalition of people living with HIV/AIDS. He was diagnosed with AIDS 10 years ago. Rajner reminds us that when AIDS was first identified 25 years ago, it was called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), a name he feels was imposed as a stigma on gay men. As a gay white man living with HIV, Rajner is very active in the political and social aspects of HIV/AIDS and stresses that the disease does not distinguish between races, genders or sexual orientation.

“AIDS affects everyone,” he says. “It doesn’t discriminate. If you pay taxes, AIDS affects you.”

Rajner encourages Americans to embrace the fight against AIDS as not just the government’s problem but as society’s responsibility as a whole. “The black churches have taken a huge leadership role and embraced their [HIV-positive] brothers and sisters,” he says. “We can end this [epidemic] if we follow the black churches’ lead. We need to spread the word, not just spread the virus.”

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