March 9, 2011
When the HIV epidemic first hit the U.S. in the early '80s, gay men were the first population to be deeply impacted by the disease. The media, doctors, researchers and even HIV advocates never really fathomed that this would be a women's issue -- and at the time, it didn't "appear" to be. In 1985, women and girls accounted for a mere 7 percent of diagnosed cases in the U.S.
Thirty years have passed and so much has changed since HIV was once called gay-related immunodeficiency disease (GRID). While men still make up the majority of newly diagnosed infections in the U.S., the rates among women and young girls are steadily increasing. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women now account for 25 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in the U.S. Of those women living with HIV/AIDS, about four out of every five women and girls are African American or Latina, although these two groups make up fewer than 25 percent of females in the U.S.
AIDS has also become the number one killer of African-American women ages 25-34, the third most-common cause of death for African-American women ages 35-44, and the fourth-leading cause of death in Hispanic women ages 35-44. And on a global level, the epidemic is even worse. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), women account for 47 percent of all people living with HIV around the world and they account for half of all new infections.
So how did we get here?
Beyond mere biology, there are a slew of societal factors that make women more vulnerable to contracting HIV: This includes poverty; economic instability; institutionalized racism; gender oppression; physical and sexual violence; being economically dependent on men; sex work; an inability to negotiate condom use; a lack of access to education, prevention and contraception; and intravenous (IV) drug use.
Complacency and silence have also played roles as well. Because HIV has been looked at as a gay man's disease for so long, women's needs and the issues they face went completely ignored for years. And while things have slightly improved, women's needs with respect to treatment, prevention and advocacy continue to take a back seat. Whether it's the lack of HIV-positive female leadership in HIV/AIDS policymaking or doctors discouraging women from receiving the HIV test that they need during routine checkups, there are too many times when the systems that are supposed to protect women, end up failing them miserably.
Don't get me wrong, we have had some successes over the years. We have seen treatment advances that allow for HIV-positive women to give birth to HIV-negative babies; the first-ever successful microbicides clinical trial; and a small increase in advocacy groups for women and girls living with HIV popping up throughout the country. But we have such a long way to go.
Women living with HIV need more visibility. If they had that, then perhaps there would not be so much stigma and silence around the disease. But until we can create safer spaces for women to disclose, they will continue to remain more isolated and stigmatized than men living with HIV. Women living with HIV exist in a world where there are too many barriers. Now is the time to break down those walls.
This is why our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women exists.
By providing a diverse range of articles, first-person interviews and resources about the HIV epidemic among women, our major goal is to provide women with the information that they really need on topics ranging from treatment differences in women and men; pregnancy and planning information; dating and relationships advice; and disclosure tips. But we also want to emphasize that this resource center is for everyone, not just those who are living with HIV. So, if you are a loved one or a caretaker of someone living with HIV, or you're simply interested in learning more about HIV and safer sex, this is a place for you too.
We hope that our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women inspires you to join the fight and become more educated on the disease. But most importantly, we hope that by putting a female face to the epidemic, it will remind you that you are never alone.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.