By: Arionne Nettles
HIV awareness proponents are connecting this week to help get transgender women to the doctor to get screened for HIV.
April 18 marks the second annual National Transgender HIV Testing Day, and research shows a continued need to focus efforts on that group. Trans women in countries around the world are approximately 49 times more likely to be living with HIV compared to all adults of reproductive ages.
And figures for trans women of color are even more alarming. In the United States, HIV prevalence among African-American trans women, for example, is about 56 percent compared to a rate of 17 percent for their white counterparts.
Dr. Maya Green sees this kind of disparity every day. The South Side Chicago doctor and founder of HIV Real Talk says the barriers transgender people face such as inability to get identification that reflects their name and gender identity to register at health care facilities and providers that aren’t “culturally competent” become a roadblock to screening and care. Those problems can become extra hurdles that add to the myriad of issues that trans women face every day.
“When we talk about the issues affecting our transgender communities, the first thing that comes to mind is stigma and bias in the health community,” Green says. “I call stigma a disease of the mind and it’s way more virulent than HIV ever could be.”
That stigma, coupled with what Green say is an inherent pressure from society for women — both trans and cisgender — to avoid discussions on sex-related topics can keep transgender women away from the doctor’s office and leave them too nervous to bring up the topic of HIV screenings.
“As a health provider, I’ve noticed that people who identify as men are more likely to bring up sex before my trans and cisgender women,” Green says.
Honest conversations about sex can bring out information on medications and treatments that can lessen the risk of contracting HIV altogether. PrEP, for example, is a pill for people who don’t have HIV but who may be at risk of getting it. When taken every day, It can reduce the risk of HIV infection by more than 90 percent. It’s an option Green says all providers should talk about with their patients.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 73 percent of trans women living with HIV are unaware of their HIV positive status. But, health providers like Green are stressing the importance of using screenings to create treatment and care plans for those who carry the virus.
“HIV is not just a virus. If you think about it, the virus alone doesn’t kill anyone,” Green says. “It’s a virus that impacts your immune system and it doesn’t even have to do that if we’re getting screened early and getting into care.”
With the growing number of available care options, health care experts are hoping the practice of getting screened early and often for HIV become easier and more common for trans women, and that education and awareness overcome barriers and stigma.
“The idea of tests can sometimes make people feel as if they can fail it,” Green says. “There’s no way to fail an HIV screening. If the screening if positive, the earlier you get into care, the more options you have.”
Data in this blog post was provided by the University of California’s Center of Excellence for Transgender Health Get the Facts About Trans People and HIV toolkit.