It is my belief that most Americans think that HIV/AIDS is now a global problem and almost eradicated in the United States. Sadly, this is far from the truth. According to the CDC, in 2006 approximately 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV and 1 in 5 are undiagnosed. Twenty-one percent! A staggering 232,700 individuals living with HIV and are unaware of their status. Keep in mind that this number is from 2006, one can only guess what these numbers look like today. Given these statistics, the annual National HIV Testing Day on June 27 is a necessity.
National HIV Testing Day Video Widget. I know. I took the test.
As an African-American woman I am fervent about the importance of HIV testing. I spent over a decade of my professional career focused on issues related to HIV/AIDS both domestically and abroad in South Africa and Botswana. My interest began when as a broke graduate student I wanted to be tested and did not have money for the test. The clinic I visited had the "give what you can" policy and I decided to volunteer my time to educate others and an advocate was born. Little did I know that my demographic would soon have the fastest growing numbers of HIV/AIDS. Although African Americans are approximately 13% of the US population, they accounted for 49% of new HIV diagnoses! Latinos account for 18% of the new cases. In the United States, the minority population is being hit hard and fast by HIV. Personally, the statistics for African-American women are even more troubling. From the CDC:
"Women of color are especially affected by HIV infection and AIDS. African American women make up only 12% of the female population in the United States, yet they account for 66% of new HIV infections. In 2004, HIV infection was the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25–34 years and the third leading cause of death for African American women aged 35–44 years. In 2005, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for African American women was 20 times the rate for White women. HIV/AIDS-related conditions are now the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25-34 years. The reasons for increased AIDS incidence and deaths among African American women are complex."
Advocates are not taking these numbers sitting down. To raise awareness of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Karyn and Luvvie started The Red Pump Project:
"That's how The Red Pump Project was born...Out of our desire to make a difference and ask others to do the same. When we put out the call for bloggers to join our cause, we hoped that we'd get a great response, but never really imagined something like this! 125 bloggers responded! Our goal was 100, so believe us when we say "Thank you from the bottoms of our hearts!"
The Red Pump Project is now a national initiative that is doing work on the ground and online to ensure that women are empowered with knowledge about HIV/AIDS and the issues surrounding it. The project has 16 ambassadors in 14 states Rocking the Red Pump to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women & girls.
The numbers for black and Latina young women are alarming - 79% of new HIV infections in young women 13-19 years of age are in this demographic. My Sistahs is a website "written by and for young women of color to provide information and support on sexual and reproductive health issues through education and advocacy." This site is full of helpful information and encourages young women to be tested not only for HIV but for all STDs. In my opinion, this type of education is important every day, not just on those specified to raise awareness. Like Marvelyn Brown, a young woman living with HIV, I wonder - what about the day after? On her blog, The Naked Truth; Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, Marvelyn writes:
"I am grateful for the World AIDS Day programs and events that raise awareness, but what happens on December 2nd? I want to see AIDS talked about all the time and in the same way I see those eye-catching beer commercials that make you laugh or those movie trailers that remind you that that the hot new Denzel flick is coming out. Picture this: One summer day, you are sitting with your girls eating popcorn in the theatre, waiting for the movie to start and that guy who does all the trailers says, “Coming to a theatre near you…H-I-V.” Would you pay attention?"
I want to take this one step further and profess my support of HIV testing as a routine part of health care. We could do away with awareness "days" and have an easy way to promote early intervention for individuals with HIV. In 2006, the CDC released the Revised Recommendations for HIV Testing of Adults, Adolescents, and Pregnant Women in Health care Settings. These guidelines encouraged routine HIV testing in all health care settings for individuals 13 to 64. After the patient is notified that testing will take place, they have the opportunity to opt out.
These recommendations received a great deal of criticism for many reasons (including lack of funding by health care providers to purchase tests, confusion regarding implementation, age, etc) but personally I am fully in favor of routine testing. I believe that this will diminish and ultimately alleviate the stigma attached to testing and assist in the early diagnosis which is key for treatment options that can prolong health. Is routine testing controversial? Maybe. Needed? Absolutely.
Until a shift in perception occurs we will continue to have stigma, late diagnosis, and illnesses that may have been prevented with early detection. Although HIV/AIDS may not be making national headlines, I hope that I have convinced you that this is still a problem of epidemic proportions in the U.S. in communities of color. I truly believe that routine testing (with the option to opt out) is the only way that we will be able to help individuals that are unknowingly infected, raise awareness and potentially change behavior of those that are HIV negative. I continue to support National HIV Testing Day, World AIDS Day, Women's and Girl's HIV/AIDS Day and others but I look forward to the time when such days will cease to exist because we are all being routinely tested.
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