To Be Young, HIV+ and Black
5 months ago
As Dec. 1 marks World AIDS Day, examining how we can fight the epidemic claiming our youth.
After then 19-year-old LaQwanna Finkley complained about a headache for the umpteenth time, her mother sent her to the clinic. It was a visit that would change everything.
“The doctor gave me a full physical and blood work, and she asked if I wanted to take an HIV test,” the Bronx, New York, native says. “I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ A week later, she told me that everything came back negative, except for my HIV test.”
Finkley’s response to the news doesn’t at all surprise those who know the upbeat, pragmatic young woman: “Okay. What do I have to do next?”
Finkley, born legally blind and often bullied as a child, viewed the diagnosis as just another challenge to overcome. “I knew that this was a task that God had for me; that He needed me to do something for Him. Even if I am scared, I’m still gonna use this situation to glorify God,” she explains.
She believes she contracted the disease from unprotected sex with a philandering ex-boyfriend, but her diagnosis hasn’t stopped her from living her life. Five years later, the relatively healthy 24-year-old is in a loving relationship with the man she was dating when she found out her status (he’s HIV-negative and gets tested every six months). Finkley spends her days working with at-risk teens in New York City’s Young Adult Internship Program, where her straight-talking tendencies are put to great use educating a rotating class of teens to the realities of the disease. “I tell them that some people don’t get a second chance; my second chance is for you not to become positive,” she says.
To say it’s necessary work is an understatement; young black men and women are contracting HIV at an unprecedented rate. According to the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention, 26 percent of all new HIV infections occur in youth ages 13 to 24. But while blacks ages 13 to 19 make up just 15 percent of the teen population, they represent 60 percent of new teenage HIV infections. And because the risk of contracting the disease is increased in communities where a higher percentage of people already have it, black teens are more likely to join the ranks of the infected.
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Why are the numbers so heartbreakingly high? Poverty, for one. A 2010 CDC study found that “poverty is the single most important demographic factor associated with HIV infection among inner-city heterosexuals.” Nationwide, 35 percent of African Americans are living at or below the poverty threshold, which the Census Bureau defines as $22,811 for a family of four. Accordingly, the president’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy focuses resources in socioeconomically depressed areas.