From the Black Women’s Health Imperative
The Black Woman’s Health Imperative (BWHI) and partners in On Our Own Terms, an initiative aimed at improving sexual health and HIV outcomes for Black women, put a lot of energy in spreading the word, in hopes of reducing the rates of new HIV infections in Black women.
While the numbers of those living with HIV are dropping, we haven’t seen the same reductions happen among Black women.
But there’s no way to just look at a partner or potential partner and know their status or whether having unprotected sex with them will be risky.
In fact, an HIV infection doesn’t usually cause symptoms in its early stage.
Many people (about 1 in 7) who are HIV-positive are unaware that they have the infection, making them more likely to transmit the virus to sexual partners.
For context, African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they made up 44 percent of the HIV infections in 2016.
Black women are almost 18 times more likely to die from HIV and AIDS as non-Hispanic white females.
Routine testing can be the key to turning the tide.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently released new recommended screening guidelines for HIV.
It gave a grade A recommendation for routine HIV screening for everybody ages 15 to 65 and younger adolescents and older adults at an increased risk for HIV infection.
It also gave a grade A recommendation for HIV screening for all pregnant women, including those in labor whose HIV status is not known.
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), private health insurance policies created after March 23, 2010, are required to offer all preventive services that the USPSTF has been given an A or B recommendation at no out-of-pocket cost to the consumer.
The ACA also gives state Medicaid programs financial incentives to cover USPSTF-recommended preventive services for adults.
Once identified by screening, the hope is that a person with an HIV infection can:
- begin antiretroviral therapy (ART)
- adhere to treatment
- achieve full viral load suppression (no detectable virus in the blood)
A suppressed viral load means better health outcomes for people with an HIV infection, as well as a lesser chance of transmitting the infection to partners.
Under the new guidelines, HIV screening will be easier for providers since they will no longer need to find out a patient’s risk status before offering testing. Much of the stigma of testing is more likely to go away.
Routine testing will also help reduce the number of late HIV diagnoses.
One-third of people with HIV are diagnosed so long after they acquire an infection that they develop AIDS — the syndrome that results from untreated HIV — within 1 year of diagnosis.
A person can be HIV-positive for as long as 10 years before being diagnosed, which makes them unable to take advantage of early HIV treatment.
Getting tested and educated can provide personal empowerment. Here are some things everyone can do:
- Learn about HIV and AIDS and how it’s transmitted.
- Help take the stigma and shame of HIV away by having open and honest conversations with friends, family, and communities across ages.
- Get tested, not just once but regularly. Talk to a healthcare provider about personal risks and the process of getting tested.
- Insist that partners and potential partners are tested.
- Think of testing as part of regular sexual health.
- Insist on condom use as another measure of protection.
- Learn about PrEP as a preventive medication.
Together, we all have a role to play.
For Black women, it’s even more important that they:
- practice sex with a condom or other barrier method
- have routine testing
- talk with their healthcare provider about medications — such as PrEP — to help prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS
If you’d like to learn more about the policies and practices that may keep women of color from accessing testing and treatment, read BWHI’s new policy agenda.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to www.bwhi.org.