March 18, 2012
By Nicole Brochu
More than 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, black women remain among the hardest hit, and the hardest to reach about prevention.
So a determined Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched an aggressive awareness campaign in Fort Lauderdale and nine other U.S. cities to urge this vulnerable population to take “take charge” of their health and get tested.
Armed with free testing, a litany of radio, outdoor and transit ads, and information distributed in salons, stores, churches and other venues where black women frequent, “Take Charge. Take the Test” hopes to put a dent in some daunting statistics: One in 32 black women will contract HIV/AIDS in their lifetime, compared to one in 106 Latinas and one in 526 white women.
Few areas of the country understand that better, or are a more fitting target, than South Florida, where Miami-Dade County ranks first, Broward ranks second and Palm Beach County ranks sixth in the nation for the highest number of new AIDS cases per capita, statistics show. Black women are among the fastest growing population of new cases in all three counties.
Fort Lauderdale’s Nellie Truitt knows the pain of those numbers all too well. At the age of 21, she contracted HIV from unprotected sex with a long-time boyfriend.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. That’s what I want people to know,” said Truitt, now 41, married and the mother of an 18-year-old son. “They think it’s just something that happens to gay people, that it can’t happen to them. But it’s a known fact that it does.”
Many cultural factors are at play in putting black women like Truitt at higher risk, said Dr. Donna McCree, the CDC’s associate director for health equity in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.
They traditionally don’t have as much access to health care as their white and Latina counterparts, and many African American women are financially dependent on their male partners, which “can limit their ability to negotiate safe sex,” McCree said.
Then there’s the stigma and the fear it breeds, which fosters an intense amount of misinformation about how HIV is contracted, by whom and how easily.
“Last year, I was really surprised how many black women tested positive,” said Mauricio Ferrer, senior program manager of the Public Health Division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an organization with centers in Broward and Miami-Dade that is partnering with the CDC in the “Take Charge” campaign.
With various testing and educational events planned with partnering organizations like Ferrer’s, the campaign’s message is emphatic: It’s time for black women to take responsibility for their health.
The first goal is to get them tested.
“There’s no better way to take charge of your health than by knowing your status,” McCree said.
But the campaign also urges black women to talk openly with their partners about the risk of HIV/AIDS and to insist on having safe sex for their own protection.
“You know him, but you can’t know everything. Get a Free HIV Test,” one poster implores under the image of a smiling, hugging couple.
The campaign’s local impact will be felt not just in Broward and Miami-Dade counties through organizations like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, but in Palm Beach County through the efforts of the Comprehensive AIDS Program.
“The [AIDS] population among African American women is really high, so anything like this that helps raise awareness, we’ll use,” said Yolette Bonnet, CAP’s executive director.
The CDC has reason to believe its year-long “Take Charge” campaign — part of a five-year, $45 million effort to combat complacency over America’s HIV/AIDS crisis — will work. A pilot program launched in Cleveland and Philadelphia was able to attract nearly 10,000 women to various community events and found that campaign messages were seen more than 10 million times.
“Women play a key role in fighting this disease, and HIV is completely preventable,” McCree said. “It’s going to take all of us to end this disease.”
By the Numbers
66 percent of all women living with HIV in the United States are black
87 percent of infected black women got HIV from having unprotected sex with a man
30.5 percent of AIDS cases in Miami-Dade in 2008 were among women
35.6 percent of AIDS cases in Broward in 2008 were among women
75 percent of women accounting for new HIV cases in Palm Beach County are black
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Care Resource, Kaiser Family Foundation