March 10, 2008, was National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
HIV/AIDS is taking an increasing toll on women. In 2005, women represented 27 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in the United States, up from 11 percent in 1990. Most women who have HIV became infected through high-risk sex with men; the second most common risk factor among women is injection drug use. Many women with an AIDS diagnosis were probably infected at a relatively young age.
In the United States, AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34. And short of death, girls accounted for half of the HIV cases reported among teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 in 2005.
For two women in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls has a special significance. National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, March 10, is designed to foster awareness and knowledge about HIV/AIDS and prevention.
"HIV/AIDS has been the theme of my public health career, and for me it's very personal," says Hazel Dean, ScD, M.P.H., acting deputy director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I have seen family members and very close friends die of AIDS, and I knew it was preventable."
Dean worked at the Louisiana state Health Department from 1986 to 1992 as an epidemiologist, biostatistician, and statistical coordinator with the HIV/AIDS Program. She started to notice how HIV/AIDS was devastating African-Americans and minority communities in general.
As she readied herself to take on the issue, the numbers she compiled were telling her minority women and girls were disproportionately falling prey to this disease and the numbers were on the rise.
"It dawned on me that this has to be a women's fight, and empowerment was the commanding word," Dean says. "Women need to be informed, because information is power. We need to be tested, so that we can take the next step to protect ourselves from contracting the disease, or seek treatment and care as soon as possible."
But to tackle the lack of information – and the many other aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – a systemic approach is needed, according to Mirtha Beadle, deputy director of the HHS Office of Minority Health.
"There is still a need to educate minority communities about what HIV is, and what it is not, because there is a level of fear and stigma yet to overcome," Beadle explains. "But the most difficult work is to connect people with the different types of care and support they need."
Some years ago, Beadle visited a program for women and children in California that addressed HIV/AIDS in a comprehensive way.
"It was a residential setting; women could live there with their children if needed,'' Beadle says. ``It's the concept of the one-stop shop. You get tested, learn how to protect yourself, and receive the treatment and support you need. It addressed you in a holistic manner."
Beadle does not believe in models that can be applied everywhere and insists that the only model that works is the one a community is willing to buy into.
"We find that only comprehensive, systemic approaches work," she says. "People at the state and local levels consider HIV a serious issue and a priority, but what is often missing is functional, workable and deep rooted partnerships that allow a holistic approach."
Looking ahead, Beadle and Dean agree that women and girls need to receive more pertinent and timely information so that they can make responsible decisions.
"Many women don't believe that they are ever at risk and still engage in very risky behaviors." Dean says. "We can't talk about this enough."
The purpose of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is to raise awareness of the increasing impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls and encourage women and girls to take Action. The theme for 2008 is "Honoring Our Sisters: Women Living with HIV/AIDS".Links
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