AIDS Takes High Toll Among African-American Women

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Men "on the down low" are turning marriage into a risk factor for contracting HIV/AIDS.

The term "on the down low" refers to men who are having sex with other men but keeping it a secret, often from their wives or girlfriends, said Jane Pernotto Ehrman, a national health consultant for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The practice is especially high among African-American men because it is "absolutely not OK to be homosexual" in the black culture, she added.

The secret is killing African-American women at an alarming rate. Statistics show AIDS is ranked among the top three causes of death for African-American women ages 35-44.

"Women are paying a mighty big price in this AIDS pandemic because many times they are the innocent victims," said Linda Bales, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

"In the U.S. as well as in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions, women contract the HIV/AIDS virus from their husbands who have had sex outside the marriage," she said. "Sad to say, being married is a risk factor for AIDS."

HIV/AIDS among black women is three times higher than among Latino women and 18 times higher than among white women, Ehrman said. "Sixty-eight percent of all new HIV cases are black women - 75 percent of whom contracted the disease from heterosexual sex. These women are your everyday women, wives and mothers."

High rate of HIV/AIDS among youth

HIV/AIDS is also increasing among young people. Ehrman quoted statistics that show youth and young adults between the ages of 13 to 25 years are contracting HIV at a rate of two every hour.

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Another alarming fact is that an estimated 250,000 youth are unaware they are infected with HIV. By the 12th grade, 65 percent of American youths have become sexually active, and 1 in 5 has had four or more sexual partners.

"According to the surgeon general, the HIV virus can be in the body up to 12 years without having symptoms," Bales said. "The ramifications of this fact are enormous and can point to the importance of AIDS testing. If individuals know their status they would be able to make informed decisions. If people don't know they are infected, precautions go out the window. Churches can work in partnership with health officials by serving as places for testing."

The church's responsibility on HIV/AIDS

Ehrman and Bales said the church needs to pay attention to this "human issue" and speak out about it from the pulpit.

"The church has a major role to play in stemming the tide of HIV/AIDS. It is vital for every congregation to sponsor sessions for young people on comprehensive sex education that includes a strong dose of AIDS information," Bales said.

"If the church neglects its faith-based educational role, the church is complicit in the spread of this disease," she added.

It's not about judgment but education, according to Ehrman, who cautioned that the subject needs to be approached with compassion.

"If you approach it from (the standpoint that) people on the down low are bad, or make judgments about a person's sexuality and how that fits biblically, then you miss the whole point," she said.

Ehrman recently talked about these issues at a workshop, "HIV/AIDS and the Church: A Call to Action," during the National Congregational Health Ministries Conference held in October in Memphis, Tenn. She also has conducted the workshop in her United Methodist district in Cleveland, Ind.

The program educates the church community about these issues. In the workshop, she explains what HIV is and how it differs from AIDS. She also talks about how the disease is transmitted, prevention and who is at risk. "It is done with frankness so that nobody is talking in code about anatomy or different risk factors," she said.

Pastors need to know how to talk about HIV/AIDS from the pulpit and how to handle the fallout from people who may be upset about hearing a pastor talk about the issue. "In the context of a sermon it needs to be looked at through Christ's eyes of love, compassion and acceptance," Ehrman said.

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