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Why Does HIV Impact African American Women Harder Than Everyone Else and What Can You Do to Help?

Professional black woman under cherry blossoms

By Leo Rennie, MPA (Senior Legislative & Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest)

February 7th marked the annual observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The day is an opportunity to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and to promote HIV testing in the Black community.  Sadly, 35 years into the HIV epidemic the need for education and community mobilization remains significant.  Nearly half of the 50,000 people who become newly infected with HIV in the United States each year are Black. HIV-related disparities among Black women are even more striking. In 2014, the rate of HIV diagnosis of Black women was 18 times the rate of white women and 5 times that of Hispanic women.  

What puts Black women at higher risk for HIV infection? 

Black women make up the majority of women living with HIV in the United States. Most become infected through heterosexual sex. Sometimes they may be unaware of their male partner’s HIV-positive status and/or his risk factors for HIV infections (such as injection drug use or having sex with other men). Lack of access to preventive health screenings, quality mental and physical health care, including reproductive health and substance use services, and other health related factors such as untreated sexually transmitted infections play a role. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is another major risk factor for HIV transmission. It impedes women from seeking, accessing and staying in care or taking their medications. A White House interagency task force studied this problem and issued recommendations that resulted in new grant programs and federal initiatives to address the challenge of sexual violence.

What can be done about prevention and treatment?

Few female-controlled HIV prevention options are available. That is why organizations dedicated to promoting Black women’s health are raising awareness about pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. PrEP is the daily use of anti-retroviral HIV drugs to prevent HIV transmission. While PrEP can be up to 99 percent effective when taken as prescribed, in clinical research women have encountered challenges to taking the drug every day as required. Community perceptions about PrEP and stigma impacted women’s adherence to PrEP in studies.  As health care providers and advocates promote PrEP to women, messages must emphasize that adherence is critical.  Women must receive supports, if needed, once they make the decision to start PrEP. This may mean providing them with regular counseling or mental health treatment, or even day care and transportation services so that they can get to doctors’ appointments.

When people living with HIV reach viral suppression, they have very low levels of HIV in their bodies. They can live normal life spans and are less likely to transmit HIV to others. But only 28 percent of HIV-positive Black Americans are virally suppressed. Effective medical intervention to prevent and treat HIV depends on behavioral, social, economic, and political factors. Integrated mental and physical health care tailored for Black women, coupled with essential social services and support, not only are necessary for biomedical tools like PrEP to be effective, but are also required if women are to learn their HIV status through HIV testing, seek and stay in medical treatment, and adhere to antiretroviral treatment (ART).

What can you do to help?

  1. Learn more by visiting the APA Office on AIDS . The office provides useful information you can share with friends, relatives, and loved ones.

  2. Sign-up for our Federal Action Network to receive updates on APA’s important public policy advocacy efforts in Congress and with federal agencies to expand HIV prevention and care options for women.  Psychologists and other mental health professions are well suited to destigmatize  HIV infection at individual, community, and societal levels, thereby making prevention and treatment of HIV safe and  routine.

  3. But most importantly get tested for HIV. Knowing your status is the first step to keeping you and your partner healthy. To find a testing site near you, visit Get Tested, text your ZIP code to KNOWIT (566948), or call 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636).

For  more information visit:

Image source: Cherry Blossoms 10 by Devin Trent Photography on Flickr via Creative Commons (

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