The National Female Condom Coalition and Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. are launching an effort on World AIDS Day, Saturday, Dec. 1, to help change the course of HIV/AIDS and help black women, who account for approximately 90 percent of all new HIV infections in the District, take charge of their health.
Nationally, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women and medical experts believe proper use of the female condom will give women greater control of their sexual health.
Dr. Jamila Perritt, medical director at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC, said the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, will be a significant tool in the campaign.
“The role that the Affordable Care Act is going to play in preventive care is huge,” Perritt told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “It will provide for routine HIV screenings for people ages 16-65. People think they can figure out who’s at risk and it just doesn’t work like that.”
In addition to routine screenings, Perritt said the female condom, when used correctly, is key to preventing the spread of HIV and costs no more than high-end male condoms.
“The female condom is a way for a woman to take charge of her health,” Perritt said.
Sabrina Heard, a community health worker for the Women’s Collective in D.C., helps women who are HIV positive get back into care, if they have stopped treatment for any reason, and serves as an advocate in the health care system for women and encourages women to protect themselves.
“As a community health worker, I am engaging clients from the time that they, some of them, are diagnosed. I walk them through the process and get them into the health care system, get them to understand that they need to form a relationship with their doctor,” Heard said.
Heard said much of her job consists of helping people address the stigma, self-imposed as well as from the outside, that many people feel once they are diagnosed with HIV.
Some women, she said, worry that people will suspect they have AIDS if they observe the women following a medication regimen. Others dislike the idea of taking drugs on a regular basis and refer to it as “pill popping,” which carries a negative connotation.
“I also take steps to help people normalize their acceptance [of having HIV] and taking care,” said Heard, who battled substance abuse problems and has been living with HIV for 23 years.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff I can have to battle with…I’m just ready to take that battle,” Heard said. “It all came with me making up my mind. It came with becoming sober. At the time I went into recovery, I dropped the intoxicants and picked up the responsibility.”
When Heard does a presentation on the use of the female condom, she works to make it entertaining.
“I personify the female body. I become, “Vagina,” and I introduce my tools. I get in a costume and I look real pretty and it’s entertaining for one thing and it brings a mood and aura to thinking about sex. Women realize they can have children [who are] not infected. It’s just a matter of safer sex,” she said.
“If you are HIV positive, when it comes to having sex, the person who is most at risk is you because you don’t want to become reinfected. You don’t want to get an STD. That could mess up all your medications.”
Heard said there are multiple strains of HIV, so if a person has a strain that is barely detectable or responds well to medication, subsequent infections could result in contracting a more aggressive form of HIV or render medications less effective or ineffective.
“Some people have a virus that is nonprogressive, but you’ve got to know which kind of HIV you’ve got.”
Being educated about HIV and taking proper precautions helps everyone and women should not be afraid to talk with their partners about protecting themselves.
“This female condom really gives [women] that sense of confidence. I’ve seen women really blossom,” Heard said, adding that women should feel that nothing is more important than taking care of themselves and they should not be embarrassed to ask a man about his HIV status well before the relationship moves toward sex.
“Black women, or women of color are disproportionately infected with HIV. A lot of messages [about knowing one’s status] are geared to gay men, but that message needs to target heterosexual black men,” Heard said. “If so many black women are being infected then something should be geared to black men and women should know [the men’s] status.”
“Before I start skinnin’ and grinnin’ in somebody’s face, that’s one of the first questions I ask,” Heard said.
“If you think you want to kiss him or at that first kiss, ask what the deal is.”