I haven’t stopped thinking about a conference call that I recently participated in facilitated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with Michele and Masonia – women and mothers who shared their first hand accounts of living with HIV. Their intimate stories detailed the complexities of risk, exacerbated by poverty, severe intimate partner violence, and early childhood sexual abuse. Their paths have been enmeshed with stigma and discrimination rooted in misinformation. But their greatest message is one of hope, empowerment and resilience. Masonia’s HIV diagnosis went hand in hand with a new pregnancy, and at the time, she didn’t even receive proper HIV post-test counseling. Yet she drew upon her strength to adhere to treatment, and she effectively prevented perinatal (mother-to-infant) HIV transmission. As brave and inspiring mothers and HIV advocates, Michele and Masonia are true testaments to the fact that living with HIV doesn’t mean giving up on hopes and dreams of motherhood.
With over 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., the virus is indeed about all of us. It is affecting our loved ones, our friends and community members. According to the CDC, at the end of 2010, one in four people living with HIV in the United States were women. Did you know that 84% of new HIV infections in women are from heterosexual contact? Did you know that about 16% of the 1.1 million people living with HIV are unaware of their status? Advocates like Michele and Masonia are joining the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign, to share their compelling stories to increase awareness about transmission, reduce stigma and help others recognize the imperative of testing and treatment.
This campaign is dear to my heart because I spent over a decade working in the HIV arena – from street based harm reduction and syringe exchange programs to federally funded research. However small my role was in impacting the course of the disease, and however small my voice is in this online sea, I come from a place of compassion. Because I know what it’s like to draw someone’s blood and walk them through an HIV positive diagnosis for the first time. I know what’s it’s like to advocate in a hospital emergency room, and confront stigma in the most unexpected places. And I know what it’s like to listen to hundreds of stories highlighting insurmountable risk factors including fear of intimate partner violence, severe economic hardship and survival sex as an only option. I’ve also seen people I greatly care for thrive through treatment adherence, as opposed to remaining uninformed.
Along with the Together Network, Michele and Misonia are reminding us of the importance of dialog. Because risk is real and HIV does not discriminate. And it is clearly time to put an end to stigma. Please stay up to date on the facts. To find a testing center in your area simply add your zip code here, call 1-800-CDC-INFO, or text your zip code to KNOWIT. Also join the conversation on facebook and twitter, and follow the hashtag #StopHIVTogether.
This post is made possible by sponsorship support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign and I’m honored to be a part of it. Opinions, as always are my own.