Sending a message

By Carmen Hooker Odom

The theme of World AIDS’ day 2004, “Women, Girls, HIV and AIDS,” reflects just how much the face of AIDS has changed since the disease first began to take its deadly toll.

An estimated 25,000 North Carolinians are living with HIV/AIDS. Black women account for a huge disparity. Their infection rate is 14 times higher than their white counterparts.

Of particular concern is infection among women of child-bearing age.

Women are often the cornerstones of healthy families and communities across North Carolina. They are our mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts and, for most of us, our caregivers.

These women represented 75 percent of all HIV disease reports for females in North Carolina in 2003.

We are also seeing an increase of infection in women over age 45, increasing from 21 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2003.  Women who are reentering the world of dating are finding that condoms, once only useful as birth control, are now a necessity for infection prevention.

We must increase our outreach to at-risk women, many of whom live in difficult circumstances.  Regardless of who is at risk or who becomes infected, we must make every effort to reach out and provide timely education and encourage empowerment.

Women aren’t the only victims of this epidemic. Today’s youth, whether on high school or college campuses, have become complacent, or even ignorant, of the dangers of HIV infection. We can’t let that kind of attitude result in more young lives destroyed.

We need to do more to educate our youth. North Carolina parents recognize that need. In October 2003, we surveyed public school parents across the state, 98.4 percent of whom said teaching kids about the transmission and prevention of HIV was important.

The need is real. According to another survey, 73.5 percent of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse, and 31.1 percent of them did not use condoms.

More than 20 years after the emergence of HIV, we are still fighting an uphill battle. Better drugs may have improved life expectancy after infection, but we must prevent infection. That means getting the right message out to the people who need to hear that message.

Carmen Hooker Odom is N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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