Whatever happened to HIV/AIDS?
From the dearth of media attention, the global epidemic that terrified the world in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have gone away. In America, the changing tide in public opinion about the LGBT community means that HIV/AIDS is no longer used to social shame a community, although the association still taints some conversations — most recently, the debate about whether the Food and Drug Administration would lift its lifetime ban on blood donations by men who sleep with men. The ensuing debate not only perpetuated harmful stereotypes about queer men, but also revealed a problematic key point about the disease: most people have no idea who suffers from it.
Contrary to public opinion, HIV/AIDS is not a disease that only affects white, affluent men like those featured in this year's Golden Globe-nominated The Normal Heart. In fact, data from the Centers from Disease Control may surprise people. According to the research, black heterosexual women contract HIV more than any other demographic, when accounting for the ratio of infection rate to total population percentage.
HIV/AIDS is not a "gay disease." Even though it was regarded as the "gay plague" by mainstream American culture throughout the 1980s and '90s, anyone — regardless of age, sex, gender, sexuality or race — can contract HIV. In fact, every 35 minutes a woman tests positive for HIV in America. Globally the rate, according to a 2013 UN AIDS report, is one woman contracting HIV per minute.
According to the UN, HIV disproportionately affects women, and especially women who are economically impoverished: "It is still the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age" and "the infection rates among young women aged 15-24 are twice as high as in young men."
Black heterosexual women are the most vulnerable: The community most affected is black women, who, as the infographic illustrates, compose a shocking 66% of all new diagnoses in the U.S., even though they make up 13% of the entire female population and only 6.45% of the U.S. This means that, as the Black Women's Health Imperative observes, "One in 30 black women will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in her life."
Plainly stated, HIV/AIDS is an epidemic for this community of women. "HIV/AIDS related illness," the Imperative notes, "is now the leading cause of death among black women ages 25-34" within the United States. The stereotypes around HIV/AIDS, therefore, have hurt awareness and slowed the disseminating of information about how this disease affects the demographic. This is in large part why the Black Women's Health Imperative, as well as other organizations like the National Black Women's HIV/AIDS Network and the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition, exist: "to increase awareness and eliminate stigma and stereotypes about HIV/AIDS in order to begin to effectively address the HIV epidemic among black women."
#WeAreEmpowered: Alicia Keys, who spreads awareness in the black female community through the #WeAreEmpowered campaign by Greater Than AIDS, joined Melissa Harris-Perry at ESSENCE Fest last year to discuss this epidemic:
Breaking stereotypes about HIV/AIDS helps a lot of communities — most crucially, that of black women. With information about the risks that affect their demographic, they can take charge of their own health.
These statistics should be a wake-up call not only to black women, but to all activists, advocates and health officials who focus on HIV/AIDS. It's not too late — but every moment of hesitation, embarrassment or denial means more lives are put at risk. Changing the face of HIV/AIDS means that these women will finally get the care that they so desperately need and deserve.