By Cristina Pena
In 1986, my family discovered that I was HIV positive. I was one of only 20 infants in the greater Los Angeles area who had been born with HIV, before we really understood the virus and how to prevent its transmission from mother to baby. As a woman who has lived my entire life HIV positive, National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, commemorated March 10, is deeply personal to me.
When you have HIV, your life is never the same. HIV affects every aspect of your life–physically, emotionally and psychologically. When you are living with HIV, you are forever bombarded by doctors appointments, endless blood work, CAT scans, spinal taps, and continuous tests. You learn to base your overall health and activity level on your CD4 T-cell counts, viral copies, and opportunistic infections.
And while antiretroviral medications have proven to be a valuable lifeline, the bitter reality is that these costly medical “cocktails” can cause a slew of side effects that change your life. Nauseated stomachs, headaches, diarrhea, neuropathy, even pancreatitis, can be the trade off for extended years. For some of my friends, the side effects proved to be so debilitating that they decided it wasn’t worth it. Some stopped taking their treatment and soon after, they died.
The emotional and psychological burden comes with side effects of its own. When you are living with HIV, insecurity, apprehension, frustration, and outright fear are every day emotions. Being infected changes the way you date and socialize. Will I ever meet someone? If I do meet someone, how do I explain that I’m living with a deadly virus? When do I tell them? Will they reject me when I do? Will I live my life alone?
After more than 25 years of fighting this disease, sadly, the infection rates among women and girls continue to rise. Every 35 minutes, a woman tests positive for HIV in the United States. Today, one in four Americans living with HIV is a woman. And AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34. These statistics are our mothers and sisters, daughters and grandmothers, wives and girlfriends.
The even greater tragedy is that HIV is nearly 100 percent preventable. I’ve heard all kinds of reasons for the apathy toward this disease that has now infected more then 1.6 million Americans since 1981. Some people simply fail to see HIV as a serious issue or just quickly dismiss the notion that they too, like everyone else, are vulnerable to infection.
It appears we have grown complacent: less careful, less safe. Paradoxically, the incredible progress made in HIV treatment and care, unfortunately has prompted some people to completely disregard HIV as present, transmissible and deadly. The reality is that far too many of us neglect to practice safe sex or talk enough about the risks because we think that HIV is a “manageable” disease.
As a girl I lived birthday to birthday. Now a young woman, I am in a long-term relationship, recently finished college and am moving forward in my career. Women living with HIV can live fulfilling lives. But the bottom line is this: the best medicine for HIV is to not get the disease in the first place. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be responsible. This means not only being educated, but also practicing prevention and communication with partners. On a day that is meant for women and girls, National Women’s and Girls HIV Awareness Day is actually a glaring reminder that we all have the power to remain HIV free. Start by getting tested and educating your community. Empower yourself to stop the spread of HIV. If you do, the only side effect will be a long and healthy life.
Cristina Pena lives in Berkeley, California and is an Ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She travels around the country to help raise awareness and advocate for children and families living with HIV/AIDS.