HIV/AIDS Community Spotlight: People Who Made a Difference in 2010
December 14, 2010
One of the main takeaways from Transforming the National AIDS Response: Advancing Women's Leadership and Participation was that there is amazing work being led by women, yet so many of these women go unrecognized. Deon Haywood is one of those women.
Haywood runs Women With a Vision, Inc., (WWAV) in New Orleans, La. WWAV was co-founded by Haywood's mother and several other black women in 1991 as a social service organization "to promote wellness and disease prevention for women and their families living at or below the poverty line." It was created as a response to the non-existence of HIV prevention resources for women who were the most at risk: poor women, sex workers, women with substance abuse issues and transgender women.
Over the years, WWAV has helped hundreds of women -- mostly women of color -- by doing outreach, distributing condoms and referring women to other services they may need, such as legal assistance and housing. This type of work is crucial, especially given that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that New Orleans and Baton Rouge are among the three cities with the highest HIV rates in the country (only Miami, Fla., ranked higher). Also, in New Orleans, women make up 39 percent of new infections, and 79 percent of new infections are among African Americans.
While WWAV will turn 20 years old next year, it just started garnering national attention in the past few years. This is in part due to the increased organizing and advocacy needs in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
In 2006, Haywood found that sex workers in particular were in tremendous need. In order to appear as though New Orleans had its "criminals" under control, the city resurrected a 203-year-old crimes against humanity law that had originally been created to prohibit gay sex. This law now requires women who have ever been arrested for prostitution to register as sex offenders for a maximum of 10 years, to have the words "sex offender" printed on their photo identification cards and endure a number of other penalties.
"There are even some women who had been charged 10 or 20 years ago, who have lost their jobs and homes because they were now registered sex offenders," noted Haywood.
How is this related to HIV? Those charged with and sentenced under this law are disproportionately poor women of color who are at elevated risk of HIV or who are already HIV positive. Economic instability and homelessness affect these women's ability to adhere to their medications or afford their basic needs, and it places them right back into the cycle of sex work and drug use.
To address this unfair law, WWAV created the NO Justice Coalition, which is comprised of several local organizations. The coalition has lobbied city officials and garnered media attention to try to get the law overturned. This December, it had its first success: Lawmakers decided to change the first arrest for prostitution from being prosecuted as a felony to a misdemeanor, which is a lesser charge and does not carry the sex offender status. This win is small and a long time coming. The NO Justice Coalition is currently working to have prostitution cases moved out of criminal court to municipal court. Haywood is hopeful. She told us, "Though it's been a hard road and we've got a long way to go, things are looking up."
While it's no surprise that HIV is largely a disease of the poor, the U.S. is just beginning to prove it.
This July, Paul Denning, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, co-authored "Communities in Crisis: Is There a Generalized HIV Epidemic in Impoverished Urban Areas of the United States," a study that found that people living below the poverty line (an income of $10,830 per year for a single adult, or $22,050 for a family of four) are five times as likely as the nation's general population to be HIV positive, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Even more shocking: By analyzing data from 9,000 heterosexual, "low-risk" adults, Denning and his colleagues found that poor urban areas in the U.S., such as Chicago, Ill., Newark, N.J., Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, La., have HIV prevalence rates that are on par with Burundi, Ethiopia, Angola and Haiti.
They also found that other issues associated with poverty -- unemployment, homelessness, low education levels, limited health care access, substance abuse and high rates of incarceration -- were all risk factors for HIV infection.
This study is significant for numerous reasons. First, it redefines how we classify the domestic epidemic. Previously, it was believed that the U.S. suffered from a concentrated epidemic, one that was mostly confined to high-risk people, such as injection drug users, gay men and sex workers. But these findings show that we have a generalized epidemic, which means no one can be left behind in terms of prevention and treatment outreach.
Secondly, Denning's findings show that there is more going on than race when it comes to HIV disparities. While the HIV prevalence rate overall for African Americans is almost eight times that of whites and for Latinos it is almost three times that of whites, when the study looked at HIV rates in the poorest communities, there was no significant difference among the races: HIV prevalence was 2.1 percent among blacks, 2.1 percent among Hispanics and 1.7 percent among whites.
But Denning is quick to make clear that his study does not mean that race is obsolete in terms of HIV risk, especially when one looks at who is disproportionately impoverished and affected by these issues in the U.S. "Because African Americans are 4.5 times as likely as whites to live in poverty and Latinos are four times as likely to do so, the findings could account for many of the ethnic and racial disparities in human immunodeficiency virus infections in this country," said Denning.
It may be frustrating to many that it took almost 30 years for this kind of study to be conducted, but at least the message is finally clear: "We need to address larger environmental issues, such as poverty, homelessness and substance abuse, which are well beyond the traditional scope of HIV intervention," said Kevin Fenton, M.D., the director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. "Addressing those is as essential to HIV prevention as providing condoms."
Hopefully, Denning's work will serve as a catalyst in ushering in this change.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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