March 10 is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a time to shed light on the impact of HIV and AIDs on women and girls. According to the CDC, more than 7,000 adult and adolescent women in the United States received a new HIV diagnosis in 2017. Of those women, 59 percent were African American, 20 percent were White and 16 percent were Hispanic/Latina. The majority of these women — 86 percent — contracted HIV through heterosexual contact.
Despite these statistics, one of the main misconceptions that remains about HIV is that it only affects gay men. Today, nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with HIV, and one in four is a woman, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. HIV is not limited to gender, race, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation.
After deciding to pursue my doctor of philosophy in nursing, I attended a meeting on health disparities and realized there was a lot of important information about HIV/AIDS and sexual health that was not being shared. I also learned that many African American women and girls are affected my HIV/AIDS, so I focused my research on sexual decision-making and sexual risk behaviors among African American adolescent girls.
Several years ago, I participated in a panel discussion about HIV and HIV prevention during an event for mothers and daughters. One of the panelists was a very handsome, well-dressed, African American man. All eyes were on him. When it was his turn to address the group, he said, “I’m HIV-positive.” A look of shock came over the audience’s faces. I could hear women and girls saying, “He doesn’t look like he has HIV.” In talking with girls who participated in my studies, this was not an uncommon occurrence. It became clear that the majority of them knew little to nothing about HIV. They believed common misconceptions — that you can tell if a man or woman had HIV on looks alone, and that there is a cure for HIV.
While there are treatments for HIV that reduce the amount of the virus in the body, there is no cure. To increase awareness of how HIV is transmitted, it is important for adult and adolescent women to know the risks for contracting HIV.
Any woman who has sex can get HIV, and two major risk factors are having sex without using a condom and having anal sex. One risk factor that is seldom discussed is not being aware of your partner’s HIV status. Knowing your HIV status and your partner’s HIV status and communicating about HIV status are key steps to preventing the spread of HIV. To encourage greater awareness and communication, the theme for the 2019 National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is “HIV Prevention Starts with Me.” Everyone is encouraged to increase their knowledge about HIV, risk factors for contracting it and ways to protect yourself, your partner and your family. These steps are key to preventing the spread of HIV.
For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/index.html. And to make sure HIV prevention starts with you this year, contact your local health department to locate the HIV testing site in your area. Get tested. Know your status.
Gwendolyn Childs, PhD, RN, is Interim Associate Dean for Undergraduate/ Prelicensure Education at UAB School of Nursing. Her research focuses on reducing the risks of sexually transmitted infections in adolescent African American girls. She is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care and has served as a national board member of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, which sets the agenda for HIV/AIDS nursing nationally and internationally.