Dr. Spencer: There's a myth about the down-low male being responsible for the large number of cases of HIV in the heterosexual community, particularly in the African-American community. This is a man who has sex with both men and women and is usually in a stable relationship with a woman, maybe a wife or a longtime girlfriend. Studies have shown that these men actually only account for a rather small percentage of HIV infection in the African-American community. By far, the majority of women are getting infected by men who are heterosexual and either unaware of their HIV status, have multiple partners, are using injection drugs or engaging in other high-risk behaviors.
5. HIV only affects the African-American community.
Dr. Spencer: HIV is affecting all women—women of all races, background and educational levels. It is true that HIV disproportionately affects women of color. African-American/black and Latina women make up only 25 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account from more than 80 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases. In fact, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American/black women ages 25 to 34. However, HIV is seen in all communities and can affect you. Of all new cases of HIV among women, black women accounted for 61 percent, Latina women accounted for 17 percent and white women accounted for 15 percent.
For this reason, all women should be knowledgeable about HIV, know how to protect themselves, use condoms and ask their partners about testing. Everyone should be tested, as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends. If you're high risk, get tested at least yearly. Pregnant women should be tested at the beginning of the pregnancy and consider retesting near the time of delivery. People who are in a relationship with someone who is HIV infected should use condoms and be tested every six months.
6. I'm older, so I won't get HIV.
Dr. Spencer: Clearly, as women get older and reenter the dating world after divorce or separation, they are at risk for HIV as well. Across the United States, there has been an increase in diagnoses in women over 50 years old. In addition, there are people who are living much longer with HIV because of the advancement in our medications. I have patients in their 50s and 60s with this disease who are doing great on their medications. Therefore, if you are dating, you should be just as careful and should protect yourself—no matter what your age.
7. HIV is a death sentence.
Dr. Spencer: HIV is no longer a death sentence. The deaths that we saw in the '80s and the early '90s are no longer. HIV medications—HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy)—have prolonged the lives of patients with HIV, and many can live a near normal life span. People with HIV have to take medications for the rest of their lives like people with many other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. The key with HIV is to take your medicine every day and to not miss doses. When you miss doses, you may develop resistance, and that's when HIV becomes difficult to treat.
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