RALEIGH — Although scientists have made great strides in helping people live with HIV, some researchers say the information people need to avoid contracting the virus is still not getting through to those at highest risk, particularly young African-American women.
Two professors at N.C. State University hope to change that. Fay Cobb Payton and James Kiwanuka-Tondo received a $252,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to come up with more effective ways to educate black, college-aged women about HIV
“Here, in the Southeast of the U.S., the prevention of HIV is not on the agenda,” said Kiwanuka-Tondo, an association professor of communications. “For many people with HIV, particularly people of minorities with no health insurance, they wouldn’t be able to afford the cure if one is ever created. Therefore, we need to minimize the ‘HIV fatigue’ and bring back the sense of urgency to the conversation about HIV.”
African-Americans accounted for an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections nationwide in 2009, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The estimated rate of new HIV infections among African-American women was 15 times that of white women and more than three times that of Latina women.
N.C. infection rate high
In North Carolina, the rate of new HIV infections among all races is 41 percent higher than the national rate.
Payton and Kiwanuka-Tondo are conducting focus groups and analyzing HIV prevention messages geared toward black, college-aged women, a group that researchers have not targeted because they were not considered a high-risk group for HIV infection. Payton, an associate professor of information systems, said they noticed incomplete information and a lack of cultural relevancy in messages aimed at this group. For example, the people portrayed on posters about HIV/AIDS were often not the same race as the target women.
Some of the information was hard to decipher. Part of the National Institutes for Health website forced black women trying to read information about HIV to choose between information geared toward women and information aimed at African-Americans, which differed.
Payton and Kiwanuka-Tondo will use the findings from their focus groups to hone social-media messages and other strategies.
This kind of research could be invaluable, said Yvonne Torres, HIV and sexually transmitted disease program manager at Wake County Human Services. Torres organizes three teams of people who do HIV prevention work in Wake County, including peer educators who visit colleges and universities.
Torres says there has been an increase in other sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, in Wake County in the past couple of years, which could signal an increase in HIV.
Also, county workers are seeing a higher number of teens as young as 14 with chlamydia and gonorrhea, suggesting that information about HIV is needed for people at a much younger age than previously considered, she said.
One of Torres’ social workers, Noshima Darden-Tabb, said she works with a few women in college who have HIV. One of them told her she got tested after reading an article in Ebony magazine about HIV prevention, just to make sure she didn’t have an undetected sexually transmitted disease. She realized she must have contracted HIV when she was a teenager.
“Some of these girls feel it won’t happen to them,” said Darden-Tabb.
Another social worker, Katie Horstman, says she finds that most of the African-American women she’s worked with are being infected in ways that could have been prevented. One of the aims of the peer educators is to emphasize to young women the importance of having their partners wear condoms and to learn to be more assertive about it.
Naisha Brown, a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health, also has seen the growing trend of HIV among young African-American women, through an outreach program she coordinates at Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh. Brown says she thinks many college-aged African-American women believe there are fewer eligible African-American men, which might make them more tolerant of men who have multiple sexual partners.
“Both people in that situation are putting themselves at risk,” said Brown. “If you are teaching them true facts about HIV then you have a fighting chance of giving people tools for how they can react.”
Brown supports the research at NCSU as long as it focuses on creating messages that stay close to the voice of their target population, and avoid cementing stereotypes and stigmas attached with the disease.