In the United States, African Americans and Latinas account for 78 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women, despite representing less than one-fourth of the nation's female population, said panelists at a Jan. 10 congressional briefing co-sponsored by APA and coordinated with Public Interest Policy staff. At the event, HIV/ AIDS prevention and education specialists discussed current research and shared their personal experiences to inform congressional members and their staffs of this disparity and offer strategies to address it.
"I will tell you for certain, race is not the cause," said psychologist Cynthia A. Gómez, PhD, a panelist at the briefing. "Being black, being Latina, being Native American or Asian/ Pacific Islander, those are not causes for women becoming infected with HIV. Nor is being white protective from becoming infected with HIV."
Gómez, the co-director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco and a former chair of APA's Committee on Psychology and AIDS, said minority women are more likely to face the challenges that can lead to an increased risk of contracting HIV, including:
Not knowing that they are at risk for HIV. "Approximately 30 percent of women who become infected don't know how they got infected, and that percentage is increasing each year," Gómez said. Low literacy and language barriers also contribute to the problem of educating women about HIV, she noted.
Structural patterns. Women of color often lack access to health care, adequate housing and educational opportunities. Those realities mean minority women have less access to the preventative education they need, and their options for treatment are limited.
Female physiology. The female body is more vulnerable to the HIV virus because of its anatomy, Gómez noted. Gómez suggested that educational messages that tell girls the physiological reasons for delaying sex might be more effective than those that involve morality or emotional maturity.
"Give them real reasons," Gómez said, "and young women will find real motivation to actually delay."
Gender roles. Many women of color come from male-dominated cultural backgrounds, said Gómez, in which women's roles are narrowly defined and closely monitored. "This certainly has quite a dynamic under the sheets," she noted. Education messages can encourage women to gain the confidence to broach the topic, Gómez said.
Also speaking at the briefing were Lynn Paxton, MD, of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Adaora Adimora, MD, an associate professor specializing in infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Karina Walters, PhD, an associate social work professor at the University of Washington; and Karina Andrea Danvers, director of the Connecticut AIDS Education and Training Center at the Yale School of Nursing.
The primary sponsors of the briefing included The Foundation for AIDS Research, the Society for Women's Health Research and Women's Policy Inc.