National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

This article is authored by Rachel Corrado- Boston University Student and BLC Volunteer

 

Being that March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the spotlight is currently being focused on woman-specific methods of treatment and prevention across the country. While this is an American event, it offers a good opportunity to think also of women across the world who are fighting against this virus, especially those living on the continent in which the front lines of this epidemiological war are located.

 Out of more than 33 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, women account for about 52%. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the scales are tipping. There, 60% of those fighting against this disease are women and girls. Because of their biology, women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV in the first place. Circumstances in many parts of Africa are exacerbating this imbalance and making things especially difficult for those hoping to control the spread of the virus, as illustrated by the story of Mma Oganne.

Mma was a married mother of four when she tested for HIV. She did not even believe that the disease existed before she was diagnosed, let alone consider that she was at risk. Because she lived in rural Botswana, this may have been a result of a lack of education in the area. Another troubling possibility, however, is that she believed the theories of AIDS denialists such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who insist that HIV does not lead to AIDS and can be cured by home remedies such as lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Some others say that AIDS does not exist at all, or denounce life-saving antiretroviral drugs as poison and claim that they cause, rather than treat, AIDS. 

When two of her children were consistently sickly and frail, Mma took them to a health clinic where all three of them tested positive. Her husband’s reaction to the news then added insult to injury; he told her that he was going to get tested and never came back home. Even more unfair is the fact that he was almost certainly the one to infect her. Mma’s husband is a mineworker, currently one of Africa’s populations at the highest risk of contracting HIV. Mineworkers often are away from home for long periods of time, sometimes in different countries altogether. Many of them have relationships with women living near the mines where they work and end up bringing STIs back home with them. This is likely the situation with Mma, who then passed the disease on to her children when they were born.

The bright spot in this story is that Mma was able to obtain antiretroviral drugs for her children. For many people, there is no clinic close enough to visit on a regular basis in order to obtain the medicine. For others, the medicine is available nearby, but they do not have the money to pay for it. At first, she refused to take the drugs for fear of alienating herself from the community. The stigma of having AIDS in much of Africa is so powerful that most refuse even to get tested to avoid suspicion. Once she saw the dramatic change in her children’s health, however, she rethought her decision.

 Being HIV positive is enough to handle without such large societal problems making things worse. Issues like social stigma, lack of access to care, the spread of inaccurate information, and so many others are tying the hands of people trying to make things better in Africa. Big changes need to made in places like Botswana, especially for women like Mma, if the spread of HIV is ever going to be controlled. This is something to think about on Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day while people the world over are fighting to gain ground in the struggle against this disease.

http://www.unaids.org/en/strategygoalsby2015/womenandgirls/

 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/rxforsurvival/series/video/botswana1_qt_h.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/opinion/04moore.html

http://baywood.metapress.com/app/home/contribution.asp?referrer=parent&backto=issue,10,12;journal,81,161;linkingpublicationresults,1:300313,1

The BLC would like to thank Rachel Corrado for her contribution to our blog, and her ongoing volunteer efforts to serve people living with HIV.

A visit to Healing Our Community Collaborative (HOCC)

Healing Our Community Collaborative (HOCC) 

On October 18th the Community Health Intern, Amanda Schulte, and Nutrition Works Coordinator, Amber Hansen, attended the “Healing Our Community Collaborative” monthly meeting at the Old South Church at 645 Boylston Street with some of the BLC’s female  members. The topic of discussion was Breast Cancer and the importance of early detection and yearly mammograms for women over the age of 40.

The Healing Our Community Collaborative, more commonly known as HOCC, is a non-profit grassroots organization for women infected with, affected by, or at risk for HIV/AIDS.  HOCC was founded in 1997 by a small group of women who realized there was a deficiency in the support groups and services available specifically for women with HIV/AIDS.  These women decided to act upon their dissatisfaction and created the nurse-led and peer-driven community for women that exists today.  For the past 13 years, HOCC has been educating and empowering women by closing the disparity in gender specific HIV/AIDS programming. 

Every month HOCC gathers for a meeting over lunch at the Old South Church at Copley Square to discuss issues important to the health of women with HIV or AIDS.  

This month the discussion focused on breast cancer.  A guest lecturer with an expertise in cancer came to the meeting and delivered a wide ranging presentation on the demographics of breast cancer, breast cancer prevention, early breast cancer detection, and the importance of yearly mammograms for women over the age of 40. 

A startling fact that was presented and further discussed by the women at the meeting was the disparity of breast cancer mortality rates among African American women compared to white women.  This shocked many of the women in attendance because the majority of women with breast cancer are white; however, there are more deaths due to breast cancer among African American women.  The cause of this discrepancy, according to the presenter, is that white women tend to catch tumors earlier in the course of the cancer than African American women.  This could be due to greater accessibility of mammograms and other early detection services for white women than African American women.  There are greater chances of survival of breast cancer when it is detected in the beginning stages because effective treatments can be used to slow the growth before the cancer can spread to other areas of the body.

Self-breast examinations and yearly mammograms are important tools for catching cancer in early stages.  Mammograms are can be scheduled by an individual without the need of a doctor’s prescription.  During the meeting, many women voiced concern and fear of mammograms.  Some were afraid mammograms are too painful or expensive, while others feared the results the exam might report.  Ultimately, every woman at the meeting over the age of 40 who had never before had a mammogram vowed to schedule an appointment within the next six months.  The women agreed the potentially life saving benefits of this exam outweighed their other fears. 

One HOCC member gave her personal story of her battle with breast cancer and encouraged all the women present to take action early and to take control of their bodies.  Taking preventative measures against breast cancer can be a very empowering action for women who may otherwise feel like their bodies too often control them.  In addition to early testing for breast cancer, other measures to prevent the start of cancer were emphasized such as weight control through diet and exercise, smoking cessation, and limited consumption of alcohol.

 For women who are interested in finding a location to schedule a mammogram: A good resource is the Women’s Health Network in Boston.

 “The Women’s Health Network (WHN) is a program of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. WHN provides free breast and cervical cancer screening, diagnostic services, and health education to low income, uninsured or underinsured women. These services are provided at local health centers, hospitals, and community agencies throughout Massachusetts.”- http://massmammography.com/aboutus.php

Contact Information

Women’s Health Network
Department of Public Health
250 Washington Street, 4th Floor
Boston, MA 02108-4619
Information and Referral: (877) 414-4447 | (617) 624-5406
Languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese
TTY: (617) 624-5992 |  Fax: (617) 624-5505
Email: DPH.WHN@state.ma.us
Web Site: www.mass.gov/dph/fch/whn/

Blog authored by: Amanda Schulte, Boston Living Center Intern