Black Women Battle Increasing Rate of HIV
On a World AIDS Day over five years ago, Tambusi Green had planned to donate blood. The blood banks in Los Angeles, where she lived, were running dangerously low, and she figured that it was the least she could do to help others in need.
Little did she know that what she thought was a routine gesture would change her life. Green, then 34, was shocked to discover that she couldn't donate blood because she had contracted HIV.
Green reacted first with a sense of disbelief. True, she had had multiple sex partners in her 20s. But she didn't feel sick nor could she remember having been sick during the window when she would have become infected. And she tested negative several years before when she was pregnant with her son.
As with so many others confronted with the news disbelief soon turned into denial. She went on with the business of her life. She went to work every day. Life continued as before.
Until, that is, one day, when out of the blue she had a seizure. That was followed by other seizures. Her doctors told her that they found a grain-size scar on her brain -- very probably the result of not seeking medical treatment.
She was forced to give up driving. She quit her job as an administrative assistant at the University of California Los Angeles. Always proud of being independent, strong willed and concentrating on her life goals, she became dependent on her mother and others for support. Much of her time was spent navigating 20 drugs to control her viral load and seizures.
"I've had pneumonia," Green told EDGE. "I've died twice and had to be resuscitated. During my last two epileptic seizures, they had a hard time resuscitating me and didn't expect me to make it.
"I could have given up then," she added defiantly. "But I didn’t." Those near-death experiences, she said, has in fact made her stronger with a new will to live. "It has shown me who Tambusi is as a woman," Green said. "I have a different outlook on life. I surround myself with positive people."
She defied her doctor’s odds that she wouldn’t make it and is adamant that she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Far from feeling a sense of shame and stigma, Green is open and honest about her HIV status and epilepsy.
Acceptance had to come "in my own time," she said. Telling others that she was HIV-positive "felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was able to let it out even though there was still the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Talking about it is my therapy."
Today, Green is concentrating on regaining her independence. She hasn’t had any seizures for the past 10 months. She hopes to be able to drive again and return to work. Her viral load is undetectable. Green represents a group with the most rapidly rising rate of HIV infection. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African American women are contracting the virus 23 times their white counterparts.
Black Women Can Be Especially Vulnerable
It is true that African American men who partner with both sexes account for many of these infections. But healthcare workers and HIV educators reject "down low," a sensational men term for those now usually defined by the more neutral "men who have sex with men."
Many such men wouldn’t consider themselves "gay," but rather heterosexuals who opt to sleep with men and women. That said, it is true that these men have become a bridge between the gay community and women of color, according to Rashidah L. Abdul-Khabeer, health services director at Philadelphia’s Family Planning Council. Self-identification as not being "gay" does not absolve them -- or their partners -- of the responsibility of always using protection, she added: "It’s a choice of behavior that allows it [HIV] to perpetuate. We have freedom of choice."
HIV is transmitted through anal, vaginal, and oral sex. Anal sex is most efficient transmitter of HIV because of the proximity of blood vessels and scarring. "Irritation and tearing of the anal walls that take place," Abdul-Khabeer explained. "It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female."
Vaginal sex only adds another entry portal, as it were. "The more frequently you have sex," Abdul-Khabeer warned, "the greater the chances of being infected."
Abdul-Khabeer’s desire to educate African Americans about HIV began 29 years ago at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic when she began working in infectious disease control at a major medical center. Her very first client was an African American married man who led a double life and eventually died of complications from an AIDS-related illness.
She remembers thinking that men keeping their sex life a secret would eventually have a cascading effect. "I hate that I was right," she sighed. "Whether it’s persons hiding their gayness, bisexuality, drug use, or that they have sex for money: All these secrets are what has kept the disease resting among our people."
Fighting Dangerous Misconceptions
Her job isn’t made any easier by a rumor in the African American community that HIV was originally synthesized in a government lab and is purposely being spread by the CIA. One study concluded that half of African Americans believe this.
It’s true that the federal government (in collusion, it should be added, with the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama) misled 400 rural African American men into thinking that they were being treated for syphilis when they were actually guinea pigs being studied to determine the effects of the STD.
African American healthcare workers and HIV educators have to work doubly hard to point out that this remains the only such documented experiment, and that it would be nearly impossible for the government to be spreading HIV without a whistle blower somewhere along the information chain.
"It’s taken so long to get rid of the myth that there is a government conspiracy to kill black people," Abdul-Khabeer sighed. "Nobody has to genocide us, we perpetuate it ourselves."
Green tries as hard as she can to get the message out that the responsibility for stopping the spread of HIV rests with each sexually active individual. She looks at the young African American women in her neighborhood and their behavior brings on rueful memories of herself at their age.
If she could go back and relive her 20s, Green wouldn’t be as trusting. "I thought I was invisible," she recalled. "It could never happen to me." Green is constantly telling her own son, now 23, to "wrap it up." As for other African American women, she has one simple message to give them: "Even if he says he’s clean, protect yourself!"
This story is part of our special report titled "HIV Minority Report." Want to read more? Here's the full list.