THE NEW FACE OF HIV/AIDS; Rising Disease Rates Strip Away Our Stereotypes

Article excerpt

Byline: TRACY JONES

Among tables adorned with Hawaiian centerpieces, Linda Williams recently talked to a handful of people at a breakfast on the Southside. She'd expected at least three times as many audience members but still spoke enthusiastically, waving her hands in front of the pink pearls that matched her blouse.

"It starts with the people in this room," she said. "I wanted to wake the sleeping giant."

The beast? Disturbingly high numbers of deaths and infections from HIV/AIDS in Northeast Florida among African-American women, she said. It's become the leading cause of death for younger black females in Florida, and the second-leading cause in Jacksonville.

It's being fed by numerous factors, experts say: Stigmatization, apathy and lack of awareness. High incarceration rates for black men, which can lead to a smaller pool of black men as sexual partners, some of whom are positive. High number of people with sexually transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, the disease continues to eat up millions of tax dollars for patient care.

Williams founded the Northeast Florida Women's AIDS Alliance in April, and she's determined to raise awareness to curtail Jacksonville's infection rates, particularly among black women - women like Williams herself, who was diagnosed in 1994.

In 2008, the year with the latest data available, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25-44 in Florida, according to the state's health department, with 155 out of 754 deaths caused by HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS was the third-leading cause of death among black men in that age range, with 170 deaths out of 1,067.

In Duval County, for the same demographic group, it was the second-leading cause of death behind all cancers in 2008. It accounted for 10 deaths - more than heart disease, breast cancer or car accidents.

Infection cases for black women are increasingly disproportionate to their population. In Duval County, black women are about 32 percent of the female population, but in 2009 represented 76.5 percent and 81 percent of the female population infected with HIV/AIDS, respectively.

Women testing positive generally are employed, have families and are often in monogamous relationships, said Nicole Richardson, HIV/AIDS VOICES program coordinator at the Women's Center of Jacksonville. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of black women are infected by their male partners.

Three decades since HIV and AIDS were first detected in the United States, a host of medical advancements and public awareness campaigns have taken aim at the disease. Yet people are still testing positive at high rates, particularly black women in Jacksonville.

FEW ARE TALKING

Williams only went public in the past year about being positive, and she choked up recently as she talked of becoming infected by a male partner suspected of having sex "on the down-low" (with other men). She took care of him for a year before he died.

To convince her community of the severity of the issue, she persuaded Mayor John Peyton this year to declare Aug. 13 as Women's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. But that was the greatest achievement that came from her alliance, which she is dissolving because of a lack of funding and resources, she said.

The stigma among black women "has silenced their voices," Williams said, and that's contributing to the community being continuously hit with the disease. In fact, the CDC estimates black women are 20 times more likely than white women to become infected.

Manuel Andrade, a case manager at Northeast Florida AIDS Network, said initial messages in the 1980s that HIV/AIDS didn't hit the black community hard were harmful and became ingrained in the minds of many African-Americans.

It's been difficult to stamp out those first impressions:

- John Essex, also a case manager at the AIDS network, tells of a client whose husband scrapes off the prescription labels from her medication so no one finds out she's positive. …