By Sharon Cucinotta
Friday, May 18, 2001
Despite overall decline in new AIDS cases, the crisis rages on in virtual silence for women, especially women of color. Mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, even grandmothers, are being infected, overlooked and underserved. Some are fighting back.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--The AIDS crisis is rapidly deepening for women and particularly for women of color, despite the overall decline in new reported cases of AIDS in the United States, according to a comprehensive new report.
"I am a woman living with HIV--you're looking at it--the disease that has everyone so hush-hush," said Mala Kennedy, an African American mother of two, who addressed a Washington, D.C., briefing earlier this month on the report, "Women and HIV/AIDS: Overlooked and Underserved," by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Women's Policy Inc.
"Well, I'm out of the closet," she said of her openness about her HIV status, "and don't you dare try to shut me back in. I won't fit." Kennedy is a motivational speaker for a teen AIDS program and member of the community advisory boards of Children's Hospital and Georgetown Hospital.
She spoke openly about being raped in 1989 by an HIV-positive man who infected her.
"We are the fastest growing population of HIV'ers," said Kennedy. "Your mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, even grandmothers are becoming infected." She also reported being too sick to go to work, too sick to qualify for life insurance, too poor to have burial funds when she dies.
Women now represent 30 percent of new HIV infections and constitute an increasing share of full-blown AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these new cases are African American women, with Latinas running a close second.
African American women make up just 13 percent of the total U.S. female population, but they represented 63 percent of cases of women with AIDS in 1999, a rate 21 times that of white women. The rate for Latinas was more than six times that of white women.
Most of these new cases are due to heterosexual transmission or intravenous drug use.
In 1999, women represented 23 percent of new AIDS cases compared to only 7 percent in 1986, said Jennifer Kates, senior program officer for HIV/AIDS Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"While HIV in Africa and the developing world has gotten considerable and critical media and policy attention this past year," said Alina Salganicoff, vice president and director of Women's Health Policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"We as a nation are focused considerably less on what's happening in this country, and particularly to women around HIV and AIDS."
The reality is worse than the statistics. Those numbers represent only reported cases of women participating in the health care system.
"We know next to nothing about women with HIV who are not in the health care system," Kates said. "And, women with HIV who are in the health care system are more likely to have poor outcomes than men."
The standard of care is more likely to be lower for women because they are younger, less educated and more likely to be unemployed. Women are also less likely to be receiving the appropriate drugs that combat and prevent opportunistic infections, said Kates. Lack of transportation, lack of child care and being too sick to go out are likely causes for the discrepancy in care, she said.
Marie St. Cyr, executive director of Iris House, a community organization created by women living with HIV/AIDS and their families, said that women living in poverty constitute most of these new infections.
"Women being affected are the ones with the least resources to be able to sustain the brunt of this epidemic," she said. Regardless of their HIV status, less than half of all women report talking to their health care providers about HIV/AIDS, the risks of HIV infection or HIV testing, said St. Cyr.
Also at the briefing, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., recalled her own refusal to confront the issue of HIV/AIDS earlier in her career.
"When I was in the state legislature, I was told of the disease and I chose to just forget about it and put my head in the sand like a lot of other folks, especially in the African American community, and more specifically in the ministries," said Millender.
"But then in 1994, when I got statistics that women in their reproductive years were getting the disease, I thought, this is my problem." Millender organized her fifth annual Minority Women's and Children's AIDS Walk in Southern California in April.
Her colleague in the House, Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., said she has introduced legislation to increase the budget from $30 million to $75 million for microbicide research at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
She said she believes in the possible use of microbicides, a gel or foam that can be applied vaginally and destroy or disable the viruses and bacteria that cause AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"If there is this concentration on research, within five years we might well have a microbicide that could be utilized throughout the world," said Morella. "What a difference that would make."
The briefing was one in a series on women's health policy and served as an introduction for the official May 25th release of a report on the Kaiser Family Foundation's new national survey of Americans and HIV/AIDS entitled "The AIDS Epidemic at 20 Years: The View from America."
The upcoming report indicates that the American public continues to view HIV/AIDS as one of the most urgent health problems facing the nation, ranking it second only to cancer. However, the proportion of those Americans who view AIDS as the number-one health problem has declined from 44 percent in 1995 to 26 percent in 2000.
Despite this drop--even in the African American and other minority communities hardest hit by the disease--results of the survey show that a majority of Americans still support increased federal spending on AIDS.
Sharon Cucinotta is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, New York.
Kaiser Family Foundation:
Transcript of the briefing:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Facts about women and AIDS/HIV:
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