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 Camille Doty and Jessica Krinke/MEDILL

 On Dec. 2, Lawndale Christian Health Center will host its first HIV support group for women. The peer-led group will have women with the disease and those who are high-risk. Case Manager Patricia Johnson wants participants to name the group to take ownership and feel empowered.  Sonji Miller said it’s important to give women what they need to overcome the stigma of being HIV-positive as well as other social issues. As a HIV/AIDS supervisor, Miller said educational and access barriers are major causes to high HIV rates in the African-American community. Both women said peer education is the most powerful tool in this West Side neighborhood. They said they are excited about the group, but realize the challenges they face with the disease. Johnson said, “It takes everybody to get involved.”

Chicago's changing face of HIV

by Camille M. Doty and Jessica Krinke
Dec 03, 2009


 Yvette Williams/personal photo

 Yvette Williams, 42, of Oak Park educates the public about HIV by sharing her own story.

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Yvette Williams prepares for the holidays by decorating her home with Christmas lights. Her welcome mat plays "Joy to the World," and every holiday season brings more joy than the last since she was diagnosed with HIV.

Williams said that feeling sorry for herself was never an option and her diagnosis was an opportunity to learn. "It's not a death sentence. You can live with it or die from it. You only stop living when you choose to." The 42-year-old ministry assistant embraces a healthy lifestyle with exercise and a well-balanced diet.

Williams represents the changing face of HIV. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, almost 2,500 black women in Illinois are living with the virus – and the numbers continue to climb as the leading cause of death for African-American women between the ages of 25 and 34.

While typically thought of as a “gay man’s disease,” HIV is now growing in a new demographic. Roughly 70 percent of Illinois women living with HIV are African-American, but they only make up 15 percent of the state’s population. Men who have sex with men, however, account for about 60 percent of cases in all adult men.

Cheryl Ward, spokesperson for Illinois Department of Public Health said, “The majority of HIV/AIDS cases are male, but the gender gap is closing. A large percentage of the female cases are African-American women.”

In 2000, Williams was diagnosed with HIV. Initially she said she wasn’t angry but shocked and ashamed. For the first three months, she became ill adjusting to the medication. It was difficult to tell her family, especially since they were prominent members of the church. Fortunately her family has been supportive and she admits would not be able to deal with this without their help.

Williams is candid with young people because many think they're invincible. Years ago, she had the same idea. "When you have unprotected sex, you open yourself 100 percent of the time to get infected." She encourages teens to be abstinent, but if they are sexually active, she advises them to get tested twice a year. It's hard to remember everyone she meets, but she was touched a student approached her in a grocery store to thank her for coming to her.

Many HIV-positive women suffer in silence. Williams said, “I know people have been affected and infected but they are not talking about it.” She is proactive by speaking to schools and churches to educate young people about safe sex practices. "I may be the voice of someone who can't speak," she said.

Pete Subkoviak, from the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said higher poverty rate and less access to resources such as doctors, HIV tests and condoms could contribute to the alarming numbers. “Even if she is sick, she is less likely to seek treatment because she knows she cannot afford it,” he said.

Illinois has one of the highest AIDS rates in the country for African-American women, but the state is just one part of a national epidemic. Nikki Kay, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said another reason black women are infected at higher rates because they think they have low risk. Kay said HIV education is vital. Women need to know how it is transmitted and how it can be prevented to save lives.

Kay mentioned there are three essential ways for individuals to reduce their risk for infection: Don’t have sex. Only have sex if you’re in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner you know is not infected. Use a condom every time for anal, vaginal or oral sex. Correct and consistent uses of condoms are highly effective in reducing HIV transmission.

AIDS does not discriminate. The CDC recommends everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 years get tested for HIV. Individuals should also know their HIV status, because if they know they are infected, they can begin to take steps to protect their partners. A study from July from the Chicago Department of Public Health found that 50 percent of men who have sex with men (MSM), a category that includes men who may not be out and still sleeping with women along with gay men, did not know their own status.

Sonji Miller, HIV/AIDS supervisor for the Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC) said women should insist their partner to use protection. She admits, however, that there is always the heightened risk of domestic violence for women who withhold sex or demand their partners wear a condom. The center is a big fan of the new model of the female condom as a way for women to empower themselves sexually and make the choice themselves.

Miller also wants churches to reach out to black women to fight this battle. Some churches are “blind-sided” by the HIV battle because they are stuck in traditional abstinence only messages. She said, “Abstinence should be taught as an alternative but kids need to know ways to protect themselves. “

St. John’s Baptist Church in Roseland takes a hands-on approach to safe-sex discussions. Rogers Jones, a church deacon, said St. John’s teaches children to wait until marriage. But he said, “We know people live in the real world and are having sex.”

Jones said the church is most effective by listening to the needs of the community not just the church. “We’ll talk to everybody who will listen.” The church does not distribute condoms, but they direct people to the right places to get them.

St. John’s is across the street from a branch of Chicago Family Health Centers, a clinic that offers a range of care for residents of south side neighborhoods with payment based on what the patient can afford.

On Dec. 1, St. John’s gave free HIV testing in honor of World AIDS Day. To foster knowledge and awareness about the virus, guests competed for iPods and laptops in an HIV facts trivia contest. At the end of the night, Yvette Williams spoke to the audience about living with the disease.

“The talk was moving,” Jones said. “It was an awakening for young people.” She started her talk by asking the crowd if they could tell she was HIV-positive. Everyone became silent.

Williams uses herself as an example of how HIV doesn’t discriminate. AIDS and HIV have been thought of as a problem for just the LGBT community for almost 30 years, but the challenge of protecting themselves is now a reality for African American women too.