Monday, November 30, 2009

AIDS in African-American Women Reminds Us Why We Need World AIDS Day

As we approach World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the troubling incidence of AIDS among African-American women serves as a potent reminder about how far we must travel on the long journey to eradicating this disease.

Health care professionals like to highlight the tremendous progress we’ve made in treating people with HIV and AIDS. The prescription drugs, long-term care plans and innovative treatments we’re providing to patients are all getting better. In general, Americans with HIV and AIDS are living longer and stronger lives. We’ve come a long way in the 25 years since the AIDS epidemic began. The World AIDS Day website, has a lot of information about the history of our battle against this dreaded disease.

But we’ve so much more work to do to battle the spread of HIV among African-Americans, and particularly among women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly half of the more than 1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS are African-American and that 40 percent of the nearly 563,000 Americans with AIDS who died in 2007 were black.

Among all women in the U.S. living with HIV/AIDS, 64 percent are African-American. In fact, the rate of AIDS diagnosis for African-American women nationwide is 22 times the rate for white women.

The situation in Pennsylvania reflects the national trend: 67 percent of all women with AIDS or HIV in the Keystone State are African-Americans. This problem is even more pronounced in places like Washington, D.C., where the prevalence of HIV and AIDS among African-American women rivals that of Nigeria.

What’s most frustrating to health care professionals is that AIDS is generally preventable through simple changes in behavior, including increased use of safer-sex practices and testing.

Sadly, too many people – especially African-American women and young people – are not getting the message. According to the CDC, the U.S. has the highest rate of teenage infection in the developed world. Every hour, two Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 contract HIV.

We know that regularly testing those most at risk for HIV – and then providing antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients – dramatically reduces the number of people who become infected. Without treatment or education, people will continue to transmit the virus to their partners.

Preventing HIV is not complicated. It takes the individual decision by every person who is sexually active to use safe sex techniques and to get tested. It takes people avoiding IV drugs and drug users vowing never to share needles. Treating AIDS is equally simple: it takes going to health care providers and following their instructions on how to manage the disease and slow its spread.

Many people avoid discussions of diseases that can be spread through sexual contact. But it’s better to talk about sensitive subjects than to let a lack of information threaten lives. Let’s hope that people everywhere, especially African-American women, hear the message of World AIDS day and find out how to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS.

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