On Friday March 10th, The Office on Women’s Health (OWH) observed National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day by providing free HIV testing with Whitman-Walker Health’s mobile testing bank from 11:30 to 1 p.m. at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building on Independence Avenue.
NWGHAAD is an annual, nationwide observance that sheds light on the impact of HIV among women and girls. This is the 12th year the OWH, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is leading the observance.
OWH started the day by promoting the testing bank on ABC7 News early that morning, which allowed community leaders to advocate about the actions that are taking place to reduce and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in women and children in the Washington D.C. area.
“I shared my story with ABC about being an HIV survivor, when I was infected, the work I do in the community and what is being done now,” said J’Mia Edwards, Community Support Specialist and spokesperson for Whitman-Walker Health. “While most of Whitman-Walker Health’s clients are east of the river–suffering from poverty and minimal health care assistance–some had not anticipated their HIV diagnosis and thought this virus would be the last thing they would have to worry about.”
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a lifelong disease amongst people who have been exposed to the virus through sexual transmission, unsanitary needle use, and perinatal HIV transmission. This can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which is the final stage of HIV, but may not always be contracted by those with HIV.
Today, 1 in 4 people living with HIV in the United States is a female 13 or older, and may have a lack of knowledge regarding preventive measures such as abstinence, condom use, and medicinal aids such as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) and PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis). This mobile testing service is important for lower income women and girls who may be unable to afford further HIV/AIDS services.
This day of observance also serves as recognition to begin changing people’s attitudes regarding the virus, and to learn about preventive measures for people in order to bridge the gap between those who are HIV-positive and those who are not.
The Office of Women’s Health reports that in the Washington, D.C. area in 2013, 15,173 people were living with HIV, while 28% of the people were diagnosed with HIV were women.
“By working with families that are infected or affected with HIV/AIDS, NWGHAAD serves much importance as we continue to break down the stigmas that people still go through,” said Edwards.
According to OWH, more than 230,000 women and girls are living with HIV. African-American women, who are only 14% of the female population in the United States, made up more than 61% of new HIV acquisitions among women as of 2015 and Hispanic women made up 15% of new HIV diagnoses.
Stigma within the community of those who are living with HIV can make the individual less likely to seek information, receive care, and disclose their status.
“Oftentimes, you really do not know if you have the virus because the symptoms are not obvious,” said Nicole Greene, active director for OWH. “As a woman it is important that we face unique HIV risks and challenges that men do not, which can also prevent us from receiving necessary treatment.”
It is important that advocates help women and girls receive the proper care since about half of women living with HIV are receiving care, and only 4 in 10 are virally suppressed. Men should also take the initiative to respect and protect their sexual partners by wearing condoms, and supporting the woman’s decision to practice safe sex, or abstinence.
“I want women and girls to be their own best friend, and to protect themselves,” said Greene. “Advocacy must recognize the stigmas these women and girls face, and be willing to break down these stigmas for women and girls with empathy and facts.”
There will be events around the United States throughout the month of March to promote women’s health in which participants are urged to wear red and post photos on social media using the hashtags #NWGHAAD and #BestDefense. If you’re interested in getting further involved with, or find more information about National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, visit www.womenshealth.gov/nwghaad. For youth, visit girlshealth.gov, and check out OWH’s Spotlight on Mina K., a young HIV activist who is inspiring girls across the country.