Why Sisters Are the No. 1 Victims of HIV: And How You Can Avoid It

By Hughes, Zondra | Ebony, July 2004 | Go to article overview
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Why Sisters Are the No. 1 Victims of HIV: And How You Can Avoid It


Hughes, Zondra, Ebony


THE statistics are as sad as they are shocking:

* AIDS is the No. 1 killer of African-American young women (aged 23-34).

* Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than White women.

* The leading cause of HIV infection among Black men is sexual contact with other men, whereas the leading cause of HIV infection among Black women is heterosexual contact.

* And 62 percent of children born to HIV-infected mothers in America are African-American.

So why aren't Sisters heeding the warning about HIV? Who's really to blame for this raging epidemic that is killing so many Black women and poisoning Black male and female relationships?

As it stands now, the "Down-Low Brother"--that unscrupulous fellow who has unprotected sex with other men behind his wife's or girlfriend's back--has emerged as public enemy No. 1 to every Sister in the 'hood.

But HIV activists fear that the collective anger against the Down-Low participants--and the fact that their risky sexual behavior is indeed infecting scores of unsuspecting women--may unintentionally deflect attention away from the fact that there are other major factors that can lead to HIV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists five major factors leading to the increase in HIV infections among Black women:

1). Drug Abuse. Injection drug abuse is the second leading cause of HIV infection for Black men and women. However, sharing dirty needles isn't the only culprit. Experts contend that substance abusers are also more likely to engage in other at-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex while under the influence.

2). Engaging in unprotected sex with partners who are at risk. Black women are most likely to be infected with HIV as a result of sex with partners who have multiple sex partners. According to the CDC, a woman who knows that she is sharing her man with others may be less likely to insist on condom usage because she fears that he will "leave or withdraw financial support."

3). Denial that at-risk behavior is associated with the epidemic. Some may be reluctant to join the HIV fight because they would have to acknowledge drug-abuse issues or even homosexuality.

"Some of us are in total denial about HW," argues HIV activist Rae Lewis-Thornton, who first disclosed her HIV status to the nation nearly 10 years ago. Lewis-Thornton, who was infected by her lover at age 23, challenged the widely held belief that AIDS is a gay White man's disease, and has since authored a book, Amazing Grace: Letters Along the Way, that discusses her ordeal.

"I've heard people say that Black women can't get AIDS because Black women don't have risque sex," she says. "I've heard that Whites are manipulating the statistics and it's not really an epidemic in our community. The responses that I've heard are just totally unbelievable."

4). An existing sexually transmitted disease (STD) can lead to HIV transmission and is conducive to spreading HIV to others more readily.

5). Poverty. Economically disenfranchised women are more concerned about paying their bills and putting food on the table than seeking preventive health care, according to some experts.

Gigi Nicks, 52, a native of Cleveland, Miss., contracted HIV from her lover, an intravenous drug abuser, back in 1991.

"I was involved in an eight-year, monogamous relationship with this man," she says. "As years went on, I found out that he was using drugs, but it meant nothing to me. It was like, you're in this [relationship] now, love was deeper than a person's habit."

Eventually, the drug use took its toll on the relationship, and Gigi was in the process of leaving him when she got sick.

Immediately, Gigi started losing weight rapidly, shrinking from a size 14 to a size 10 in a matter of weeks, the glands in her neck became swollen and she was constantly fatigued.

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