Among other alarming statistics, African American women are 7 times more likely to get HIV in the U.S. than Caucasian women, according to one of the presenters Friday at the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day discussion in the Martha and Bennie Benjamin Conference Center.
The Caribbean has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS, after sub-Saharan Africa, making such gatherings critical reminders of the ongoing human cost of the disease.
Levida Brown, the territorial prevention coordinator of the STD/HIV/TB Program for the V.I. Department of Health gathered oversaw the panel of discussions. The panel included a teacher from UVI who is also a nurse, a community outreach specialist, and two motivational speakers who are living with HIV.
Clinical Nurse Education Coordinator Debbie Cestaro-Seifer, gave a 45-minute overview of HIV and AIDS, which also included statistical data on how more people in the Caribbean are battling HIV than in previous years. She also explained that in the United States as of 2009, 25 percent of people with HIV are women and girls. Furthermore, 64 percent of these are African American, followed by 17 percent who are Latino women.
“One startling statistic is that 1 in 5 women with HIV don’t even know they have it,” she said.
As of 2008, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the total reported cases of HIV stood at 274, with 12 new cases that same year. Even more worrisome is that numbers don’t reflect the majority of the population who hasn’t even been tested.
Motivational speaker Luz Maldanado took the podium to recount her battle with drugs and how she learned 17 years ago that she was HIV-positive. Upbeat and radiant, she moved the crowd with her positive story of how she kicked drugs and made a better life for herself once she found out she was positive.
“It’s a blessing to me that I am courageous enough to stand in front of you and say that I have HIV,” she said.
Madanado explained the common processes that go through a person’s head when they are first diagnosed; depression and thoughts of suicide often go through their minds. But she explained how she built her support system and erased the stigma of being HIV positive.
“You can’t stigmatize me unless you know something about me,” she said.
Then as if to prove her point, she reached out her hand to one of the crowd members who reached back and held it.
“Can I hurt you?” she asked.
“No,” the girl responded.
“No, I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m only here to love you,” Maldanado said.
Next, Xiomara Sanchez, a community outreach specialist from Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council, which coordinates education, prevention and response efforts, spoke of the dangers of staying in abusive relationships and gave an overview of how to recognize unhealthy relationships and how to build healthy relationships. Sanchez also explained how important it is to move past the euphoric stage that seems to happen when people first fall in love and move toward healthier relationships based on trust and mutual respect of one another.
After the panel, guests were invited to stay behind for pizza, fruit and vegetables.