A group of Pittsburgh’s most prominent and prestigious African-American women spent their Saturday discussing what some would call an awkward topic—HIV/AIDS. To make it even more “awkward,” their mothers, daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters joined the women, to talk about topics like sex and intimate partner violence.
“A lot of what goes on in our thought process affects our physical body. In the U.S. there’s a stigma; we don’t talk about it. Unfortunately the numbers are going up,” said Nekesha Oliphant, M.D., family medicine and psychiatry, UPMC. “The newest infection rate is African-American women. There’s self esteem issues; there’s a denial.”
Dr. Oliphant was one of many speakers at “Women, HIV, and the 40th Anniversary of Our Bodies, Ourselves,” an intergenerational symposium in observance of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The event at the University of Pittsburgh University Club on March 10 was part of the Women and Girls Health Weekend hosted by Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS Inc.
“When we focus on the epidemic here in Pittsburgh, these young women were infected early. African-American women ages 25-34 are the leading group who are dying from AIDS,” said Kezia Ellison, founder and president of ETAH. “We wanted this to be an intergenerational day because this is about all of us. What we’ve found is that just because policies exist, doesn’t mean it’s trickling down. We have the information; we have the statistics, and the infection rates are still increasing.”
According to the speakers, Pennsylvania is the 6th highest state in the country for HIV/AIDS infections. And, there are a number of other health issues affecting the region as well. For example, Wilkinsburg is the Chlamydia capital of the nation.
Beyond presenting the startling statistics of infection rates around the region and the country, the event went one step further, by bringing in women to share their personal HIV/ AIDS stories. The brave women shared how they first learned they had contracted the disease and the impact it has had on their life since.
“This was the most devastating information (my family) had heard. But luckily God had blessed me with a good family,” said Shelia Taylor, a peer advocate with East Liberty Family Health Care Center. “I challenge you all to educate someone. We should start educating our children at 10. This disease is 100 percent preventable.”
Four years after finding out she had contracted the disease, Taylor said she was blessed to discover she was pregnant, despite having previously undergone surgical sterilization. Now she helps others living with the disease, including a 22-year-old woman who discovered she had contracted the disease when she became pregnant with her first child.
Another powerful speaker, Mary Henze, an educator with Chosen By Choices, an HIV/AIDS awareness program, contracted HIV while in what she once thought would be a loving marriage. Luckily, although she had contracted the disease while pregnant, her son did not test positive for HIV.
“I was ready to enter the fairytale of my life only to find I had entered hell. For many years of my marriage I was abused. I was thrown out of cars, drug up stairs; I had guns pointed in my face. I left many times only to find I was pregnant. Although the abuse never diminished, it continued to get worse,” Henze said. “I had nothing to do, but get on my knees and pray. I knew I wasn’t meant to live this life.”
Due to her religious convictions, Howze only divorced her husband after a private investigator found out her husband had been committing adultery. It was then that she discovered she had contracted HIV and Hepatitis C.
“Honestly I got a gun; I plotted my husband’s death. How could I have done this to my son? It was my choice to stay in that marriage,” Henze said. “Please understand, I’m not saying life is simple with HIV or that I don’t have difficult moments. But God has given me a gift. He’s given be a story to share with all of you. I ask you from here, remembering this, that you be safe.”