Standing With Sisters in the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

By Francesca Witcher

This week, more than 20,000 people from around the world, including scientists, medical doctors, sex workers, and AIDS activists, have been convening at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center for the XIX International AIDS Conference, the theme of which is “Turning the Tide Together.” The international conference hasn’t been in the U.S. for 22 years, because there was a 25-year travel banon persons with HIV/AIDS entering the U.S.–a ban finally lifted by President Obama in 2009.

It’s appropriate that the U.S. site be D.C. because it represents the heart and soul of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., especially within communities of color. According to the D.C. Department of Health [PDF], there are currently 14,465 D.C. residents living with HIV/AIDS–2.7 percent of the population–which exceeds the World Health’s Organization‘s (WHO) classification of a generalized epidemic (one percent).

African Americans, the most severely impacted group in D.C., make up half of the local population but account for 78 percent of all infections. And while there are more African American men than women infected by HIV in D.C., African American women account for [PDF] 92 percent of new infections among women in the city. The rate of infections are disproportionately concentrated in densely populated African American communities in the city, including Wards 1, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

As reported [PDF] by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), those disproportionate rates of infection are reflected nationwide, where African Americans represent 14 percent of the population yet make up 44 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases. Latinos are overrepresented in HIV/AIDS statistics as well (16 percent of the population, 20 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS), but not as dramatically.

Although male-to-male (MSM) transmission is the most common form of transmission of the virus in the U.S., African American and Latina women become infected through heterosexual contact in 85 percent of their cases. In 2009, according to the CDC [PDF], the estimated rate of new HIV infections for black women was more than 15 times as high as the rate for white women.

People of color are also fighting the HIV/AIDS war around the world, with women strongly affected by the disease. UNAIDS reports [PDF] that, “More women than men are living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 59 percent of people living with HIV.” Moreover, women account for almost half of new HIV/AIDS infections in both the Caribbean and in Latin America.

The World AIDS Conference is a great opportunity for all of us–including young feminist activists on college campuses–to get involved in the fight to stop the spread of AIDS. We can all take more steps to not only learn more about the disease and the communities it impacts, domestically and around the world, but also stand in solidarity with sisters of color as they work to eradicate the disease in their communities.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, you can attend the remaining Global Village sessions of the conference, particularly those pertaining to women. The remaining plenaries will broadcast online.

For updates on the International AIDS Conference, check out the official twitter @AIDS2012.

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