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Lifting Up All Women

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This week, the United States is hosting the 19th International AIDS Conference. As we welcome 22,000 leaders, advocates and experts from around the world with the goal of ending HIV/AIDS, I thought it was important not to forget those living with HIV/AIDS here in our home town. Among the 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, African Americans make up almost half of all cases, despite representing only 14% of the U.S. population. Women comprise 23% of new HIV infections in this country, and African American women make up nearly two-thirds of these cases. Here in D.C., we have one of the highest HIV rates in the country, with 2.7% of all D.C. residents living with HIV/AIDS, and women comprise 28% of the cases. Of the 4,000 women living with HIV in D.C., 92% are African American. Compared with men in D.C., women living with HIV are still more likely to be tested later in the course of their disease, and are less likely to be linked to care.

On Saturday, R&B legend Alicia Keys and I joined the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Black Women's HIV/AIDS Network for an inspirational meeting with a community gathering of courageous black women living with HIV/AIDS. Our goal was to lift their stories up to provide insight and guidance for our efforts to end HIV/AIDS here at home.

For so many of us, our commitment to fighting AIDS comes from the heart. Every day, I carry with me the pain of watching the excruciating death of my sister-in-law, Julie, eighteen years ago. Julie went for months without being properly diagnosed because it simply never occurred to her doctor to check for HIV. By the time she was diagnosed, it was too late. Julie left behind a devastated husband and a five-year-old daughter, Tracy. Tracy, who is now all grown up, accompanied me on Saturday.

We heard from Dr. Adaora Adimora, Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, about the many social and economic factors that place African Americans at greater risk for HIV infection. Next, Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick, an infectious disease physician, moderated a panel of five African American women all living with HIV. Their willingness to be open and candid about deeply personal experiences was truly amazing. They shared their poignant stories with grace and dignity, with the profound hope that, in so doing, we all would learn and understand their journey. I was profoundly touched by their incredible strength and resilience as they described their fight for their health and their lives. They spoke about confronting and overcoming the stigma and discrimination associated with being HIV-positive, yet none of the women allowed HIV to define them. They revealed how and when they disclose their status and the impact doing so had on others. They reflected on dating and relationships, self-esteem, the importance of faith, and their ever growing empowerment as women in the face of adversity. They each emphasized the importance of HIV testing, and discussed their struggles to accept and embrace the need for life-extending treatment becoming a part of their daily routine. And they all spoke of being nurtured and strengthened by other women who gave them the emotional support to not just survive, but to thrive.

It is exactly this sort of community mobilization that is starting to help us turn the tide against the HIV epidemic here in D.C., where no infants have been born with HIV since 2009. Due to expanded testing efforts, people are being diagnosed with HIV earlier in the course of the infection, meaning they can take steps sooner to protect their health and the health of others. More people are accessing effective treatment earlier. For instance, the proportion of people diagnosed with HIV who entered care within three months of their initial diagnosis increased in the District by 31% between 2006 and 2010. That is real progress.

The women were thrilled to meet Alicia Keys, who was deeply moved by their stories and committed to add her powerful international voice to the epidemic here in the U.S. Alicia and I intended to lift up the women. But really, their strength lifted us up.