Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
This past Tuesday, I was incredibly humbled and honored to be invited to the White House as a Champion of Change. As I toured the White House and met with administration officials I couldn’t help but think about how far we’ve come and how much more work needs to be done to end the HIV epidemic.
30 years later, we are still struggling with stigma, increased levels of miseducation and deep-rooted fear of those infected with HIV. Just this week, while drinking with friends and colleagues, I was reminded of how much more work we have to do when it comes to educating the public at large about how HIV is transmitted. We ordered a huge drink (bucket sized), one that came complete with six fun neon straws. Folks were chatting, laughing and having a grand ole time. As the evening progressed, people began to forget which straws were theirs. One person exclaimed, “It’s okay if I drink from someone else’s straw—I’m not sick, its not like I have AIDS or anything!” That comment struck me like a lightening bolt… and I kept thinking, “Thirty years into this epidemic, and still, there are people that think HIV can be transmitted by drinking from the same glass or straw…”
I am here to tell you that HIV can only be transmitted by specific fluids: blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. With the help of antiretroviral therapy (ART), an HIV-positive person with a non-detectable viral load (amount of virus in one’s body fluids) has a 4% chance of passing on the virus. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) otherwise known as HIV medications, reduce the viral load in the blood, as well as in genital secretions (for both men and women). This information strongly suggests that continued use of antiretroviral therapy make HIV-infected people 96% less contagious.
HIV has changed the trajectory of so many lives. Black women have been especially hard hit by this epidemic. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, we represent the majority of new HIV infections and AIDS diagnosis among women. In 2009 Black women accounted for 64% of estimated AIDS diagnoses among women, ages 13 and older, yet we are only 12% of the U.S. population of women. We are disproportionately impacted but we are strong and resilient. I believe that we will beat this disease. But we can only do so by beginning to have conversations about HIV. We can no longer be silent when it comes to HIV polices, services and treatment that directly affect us. Our youth need us to play an active role fighting the epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that although Black teens (ages 13–19) represent only about 17% of U.S. teenagers, they accounted for 68% of new AIDS diagnoses among teens in 2009.
We cannot fight this fight without engaging our Black men. For the last 30 years we have worked feverishly to engage women while minimally engaging their male (self-identified heterosexual) partners. We have failed miserably at developing public health HIV prevention messages that resonate with the men that Black women have sex with. We need to invite our brothers to the table. They are virtually invisible, in this epidemic. Today on the 30th year of this pandemic I urge you to change the way you view HIV, I encourage you to learn all that you can about this disease, most of all I implore you join me in working to make certain that this disease is not a birth rite for our youth. We can, we will and we are meant to survive!
Hadiyah Charles is an advisory board member of The Center of HIV Law and Policy.