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National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: Let's Break the Stigma

MAR 10, 2017 | KRISTI ROSA
More than 280,000 women 13 years of age or older are living with HIV in the United States. This staggeringly high number has prompted researchers and healthcare officials alike to focus their efforts on finding ways to cut these numbers down; one of the best ways to do this is by promoting awareness of the virus.

Today (March 10, 2017) marks the 12th observance of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a day that is dedicated to raising awareness about the impact that HIV/AIDS has on women and girls, especially regarding the stigma associated with infection.

Although we have come a long way as a society since the discovery of HIV, even to this day, there are a number of different stigmas associated with the virus for both men and women, one of them being “uncleanliness.” In order to avoid these stigmas, an individual might avoid being tested for fear of what a diagnosis might mean on a social level.

According to Carmen Zorrilla, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, University of Puerto Rico, School of Medicine, the stigma associated with HIV is very similar to what women who are infected with Zika virus are facing. In an interview with Contagion®, Dr. Zorrilla said, “I think there’s a parallel between Zika and HIV not because they are similar viruses or any of that, but the social impact and our response. There’s stigma; the pregnant women with Zika infection do not disclose. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of you to judge them [and say], ‘why did you get Zika? Weren’t you using condoms? Weren’t you using mosquito repellent? You did not take care of yourself.’” Likewise, women who are living with HIV may be reluctant to seek needed treatment due to a fear of being judged not only by society, but their loved ones as well.

The best way to break stigma is through education, and this is why awareness days such as this one are so important. Days of awareness bring the issue to everyone’s attention on a national and even global level, and also encourage individuals to reflect on these harmful stigmas and question why they even exist. This is one of the first steps in putting an end to them for good.

In addition to promoting awareness of the stigmas, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is also dedicated to emphasizing the need for all women, pregnant women in particular, to get tested, and if needed, treated, for HIV.

The theme of the day reminds everyone that “The Best Defense Is a Good Offense,” meaning that taking active steps to prevent infection is key. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health is taking this day to encourage empowerment among women and girls, inspiring them to take steps to protect themselves and their partners against the virus.

Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of ways that women and girls can be proactive when it comes to the fight against HIV. One of the first things that they suggest is quite simple: talk about it. Creating a dialogue is the best way to spread the facts and promote awareness not just in the United States, but worldwide. Furthermore, the knowledge that they share has the potential to ultimately save a number of lives.

The CDC also implores women to “start Doing It,” which means to get tested for the virus, especially if they are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant. In fact, the CDC recommends that everyone between 13 and 74 years of age get tested because “knowing your HIV status gives you powerful information to help you take steps to keep you and your partner healthy.” Furthermore, they also provide women with tools to find a testing site nearest them.

A number of tools are available that women can use to actively protect themselves and their partners from infection with HIV. The best way, of course, is abstinence from both sexual activity and injection drug use. However, other preventive measures can be taken such as: consistently (and correctly) using condoms, limiting the number of sexual partners, refraining from engaging in “risky” sexual behavior, never sharing needles, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if one is at high risk of infection, and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). There are also tools available to learn more about protective strategies that can be taken, one such one is the CDC’s new HIV Risk Reduction Tool.

The CDC implores all women who are living with the virus to seek medical care and take HIV medications as a part of an antiretroviral therapy (ART) regimen. They remind the public that if it is taken every day, the correct way, ART can work to reduce not only the amount of the virus within the body, but the risk of transmitting the virus on to a partner.

Perhaps most importantly, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day also reminds women and girls who are living with HIV that they are not alone. There are actions they can take to allow them to “live well with HIV.” A diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and if everyone continues to work together to promote awareness perhaps HIV-related stigma can come to an end once and for all.
 
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