Black Women and HIV Rates: A Reprieve

A decline in infection rates brings cautious optimism as the nation marks HIV Testing Day.

A woman, Tyshuanna Jackson, gets blood drawn for HIV/AIDS and STD testing at Los Angeles health fair. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)
A woman, Tyshuanna Jackson, gets blood drawn for HIV/AIDS and STD testing at Los Angeles health fair. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

(The Root) — Usually, when Quinn Gentry stops talking, the women in the audience spend a few seconds sitting, shell-shocked and silent.

Around Atlanta, Gentry’s speeches — rife with the nitty-gritty and completely true stories of women infected with HIV collected over the course of her research career — are the stuff of legend. In no uncertain terms, Gentry, a sociologist who studies the way economic and social dynamics influence the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, talks about the lifetime risk that black women — even those with decent incomes, houses, degrees, husbands and church homes — face of contracting HIV. Gentry’s stories are delivered along with epidemiological data, charts and graphs that all make one thing plain: Black women are in peril.

“You should see the faces,” said Gentry, the president and founder of Messages of Empowerment Productions, an Atlanta-based public health education company. “When they look stunned, I know that I may have reached them. What I bring, it’s not the story about sex workers and men on the down low that they’ve already grown used to hearing. What I talk about is the way that blind trust and silence, stuff that may be a part of their life, can be deadly.”

It turns out that shocking presentations like Gentry’s and a turnaround in federal HIV-prevention strategy that began near a decade ago may be saving lives. As the country marks National HIV Testing Day (click here to find a free HIV-testing location near you) today (June 27), officials with the nation’s chief health monitoring agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say that something interesting and encouraging seems to be happening with black women and HIV.

For the first time in two decades, the number of new HIV infections reported among black women — a group bearing the brunt of one of the nation’s most disproportionately high HIV-infection rates — has declined. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, the most recent detailed data (pdf) available, the number of new infections among black women slid a full 21 percent.

“It’s probably a little too early to declare victory,” said Donna Hubbard McCree, associate director for Health Equity in the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. “But are we evolving as the epidemic evolves? Are we cautiously optimistic? I’d have to say yes.”

The story of HIV and its impact on black America has for so long been so bad that when the CDC released its annual HIV Surveillance Report earlier this year, the news came as a welcome but true surprise.

After all, African Americans make up only about 12 percent of the nation’s population but more than 40 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS. Black women represent the fourth-largest group of HIV-infected individuals, behind white, black and Latino men who do not necessarily consider themselves gay or bisexual but do have sex with men. In portions of the Deep South, HIV-infection rates have spent the last three decades soaring so high that the share of people living with the disease rivals the situation in some developing nations.

The slide in new HIV infections among black women had not gone unnoticed in previous years, said McCree. But in the public health world, a one-year event is considered a possible blip. A two-year public health event registers as something worth monitoring and noting. And a three-year pattern is cautiously but excitedly regarded as the possible start of a health trend.

When it comes to a disease like HIV/AIDS — one for which effective but expensive treatments have been developed but for which a cure remains elusive — good news is always relative.