Is the Worst Behind Us For Black Women?

HIV infections finally drop significantly among African-American women, but this is no time to stop fighting.

BY Neal Broverman

January 17 2014 12:22 PM ET UPDATED: March 06 2014 9:30 PM ET

Civil rights leaders, health care workers, and all those who battle against HIV and its disproportionate effect on people of color got a welcome surprise after a lengthy report, released at the end of 2012 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed the first-ever decline in new HIV infections among African-American women. The number dropped 21%, from 7,700 to 6,100, between 2008 and 2010.

It appears that African-American women have finally turned a corner with HIV, though at the moment it’s unclear if these numbers are anomalous or if targeted initiatives have finally taken root. The CDC itself focused in on this group of people last year with its “Take Charge. Take the Test” campaign, which advocated HIV awareness and testing in 10 cities where black women are particularly at risk.

Leisha McKinley-Beach, director of stakeholder engagement at the Black AIDS Institute, believes the reduction is partly thanks to the federal government’s emphasis on black women (she has much praise for the CDC’s pro-condom Sista program) as well as an unwavering commitment to African-American women from groups such as hers.

“We have an African-American HIV university where we’ve trained people, including women, across the country to go back to their communities and educate them about HIV,” McKinley-Beach says of the Black AIDS Institute’s initiatives. “So they train their neighbors and also build networks. There’s also been wonderful social media campaigns like Greater Than AIDS, which we partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation on.”

Teaming up pays dividends by helping campaigns reach a greater number of people, McKinley-Beach says. She points to the successful partnerships of the CDC’s current Act Against AIDS campaign, which utilizes TV and radio public service announcements, print and online advertisements, doctor participation, and nonprofit and private-sector organizations to reach the public about prevention and testing. The federal agency had 19 partner groups to help blast its message, including the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the National Council of Negro Women, and the NAACP.

Innovative thinking by other groups could also be behind the reduction, McKinley-Beach says. Officials in Florida, which in the past few years made it a priority to test and educate black women, sought assistance from an African-American–focused women’s motorcycle club.

“When we think of HIV, that’s not a group we automatically think of,” McKinley-Beach says.

Florida officials would have club participants take a pledge to get tested and educate other women about HIV, and then take another black woman to get tested. It was a success.

“With all these interventions, I’m not surprised to finally see some progress,” McKinley-Beach says, adding she hopes such initiatives serve as models for other groups greatly affected by HIV, like young gay and bisexual black men. “I know we have a long way to go, but for now it’s nice to celebrate that our strategies are working for one of the hardest-hit populations with HIV.”

LaVera Anom is determined not to rest on any laurels. The HIV-positive mom is a graduate student in marriage and family studies and also a peer educator for AIDS Project Los Angeles. She speaks to everyone from high school students to mothers just like herself about healthy relationships, condom negotiation, coping mechanisms for living with HIV, and the importance of knowing your status.

“I can’t tell you how many times when I’m open about my status and mention it in my graduate studies, women are shocked and say, ‘How did you get it? You’re educated and you’re this and you’re that.’ You can be as educated as you want to be, but it means nothing if you’re not educated about HIV,” Anom says. “I think there’s a growing awareness [among black women about HIV], but there still needs to be more.”

To underscore Anom’s point, though the rate of new HIV infections among black women has dropped, it remains 20 times that of white women, the CDC reported.

Anom believes the most effective messages for black women are those delivered by black women. “That’s another reason I’m so open about my status now,” she says. “I realize I have to be that face. I have to talk about it if I want to see a change and make a difference.”

Anom views the CDC’s report with cautious optimism, knowing that good news can translate to a decrease in urgency.

“Unfortunately, when we see things start to go well, we back off and it becomes a problem again,” she says. “[HIV discussion] needs to be a part of culture, part of daily life, part of our part of our education system on a long-term basis.”

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