Thursday, March 19, 2009

HIV in DC (or, a woman's worth)

The periodic ritual of hand wringing, head shaking, and teeth gnashing is taking place about the catastrophic rate of HIV infection in Washington, DC. To be fair, the current D.C. government is trying to get back on track in combatting the disease, but has had its hands tied--for instance, until recently, there was a congressional ban on local tax dollars being used to fund needle exchange programs. (Another reason that DC needs real congressional representation, but that's another rant.)

There were glimmers of good news in the gloom--that only one infant was born with HIV in 2007, contrasted with 10 in 2005. Moreover, 70,000 residents were tested for HIV as part of a campaign, compared with 40,000 four years ago.

However, horrifying are the stats on heterosexual sex--according to Donald Blanchon, who runs the Whitman-Walker Clinic, ..."70 percent of them said that did not use condoms..." Sadly, I'm not surprised. While the phrase that the AIDS infection rate is comparable to that of West Africa, we say that as though the attitudes of men in America are different from those in Africa. If we don't deal with what a refusal to use condoms represents--a blatant disregard for one's own life (suicide on the installment plan?), a clinging to the plantation-era myth that one's manhood is based on one's reputed sexual prowess, and disregard for the lives of others--the infection rate will continue to skyrocket.

Interestingly, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy mentioned the high rate of infection of the STD chlamydia in DC, which weakens the immune system and makes HIV infection more likely, as a sign of how vulnerable DC's black female population is. I agree with him that any AIDS public service campaign needs to be in-your-face, because, sad to say, we are numbed to the gravity of the situation, and need a visual face slap to wake up.

Of course, provocative public service campaigns urging condom use, increased testing and surveillance, needle exchange programs, will probably prove to be of great help if implemented with gusto. However, to quote Elizabeth Pisani, "The belief newly empowered women would be more likely to refuse sex or use condoms than already empowered men rests on the questionable assumption that women care more about staying alive." While Pisani was speaking of African women, the same could be said of African American women--whether we, though newly empowered (another shaky assumption) care enough about our own survival. What is a woman's worth?

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