Kimberlin Dennis was 33 years old and happily married for seven years when she found out she was HIV-positive.
“How could this happen to me?” Dennis, now 50, says was her first thought. “I was tested before… and my results came back negative.”
Confident that she and her husband were faithful in their marriage, she admits she hadn’t planned on taking another HIV test. That is, until her husband became ill. Odd skin lesions began to cover his body and led him to the doctor, where they ran a long list of tests.
“Then, they told him he had AIDS,” Dennis recalls. “And he had four months to live.”
That day, Dennis had an HIV test and 2 weeks later, received her own shocking news. She tested positive for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS.
“Who would have thought he had it?” says Dennis. “We were in the process of trying to have a baby. We thought this was something we didn’t have to worry about.”
Her husband’s only other sexual partner — before the couple started dating — had been abusing IV drugs and, unbeknownst to the couple, became HIV-positive.
“She knew,” says Dennis. “And she chose not to tell him.”
After the woman found out, she abruptly left Ohio, where all three lived, and moved to California.
Dennis’ husband died six months after his diagnosis.
Because of stories like Dennis’ and many others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a campaign this month to empower black women to get tested for HIV, called Take Charge. Take the Test.
“Many black women still underestimate their risk,” says Dr. Donna Hubbard McCree, director for health equity at CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS. ”[Women] may feel like, ‘I don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, so I’m not at risk.”
According to Dr. McCree, one in 32 black women are at risk of being diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, compared to one in 106 for Hispanic women and 1 in 526 for white women.
“A lot of women are afraid,” says Dennis, who uses her experience to educate others about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. “They may say, ‘I’m married, I don’t need this test,’ or ‘what is my spouse going to say if I get tested?’”
Despite any assumptions or stigmas that come with being tested, Dennis urges women anyway in her outreach, including her efforts with Ministry of Hope.
“No one is going to tell the truth of their entire past history,” she says. “Testing is the only way to find out, [and] the second time may not come out like the first time, like in my case.”
Even when comparing women with similar levels of risky behavior, black women are at greater risk than other ethnicities, says Dr. McCree. One major factor is the high prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections — chlamydia, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea or HPV — in the black community. It is also well-known that other sexually transmitted infections make it more likely to become infected with HIV.
Because of this, she explains, black women are more likely to encounter a partner with HIV, assuming she has sexual intercourse with other black men. The large ratio of black women for every black man, worsened by incarceration and homicide, increases the risk of infection in a given community.
“It’s going to take all of us,” McCree says. “Daughters, sisters, mothers, we all need to be talking about [HIV]. The way you know your cholesterol, you should know your status.”
Early diagnosis leads to early treatment and better outcomes, HIV experts say. With current medication regimens, many people living with HIV have virus levels so low, it’s undetectable on blood testing.
Dennis credits her long-term survival — it’s been 18 years since her diagnosis — to finding out her HIV status early.
“If my husband hadn’t shown up with full blown AIDS, I would have been one of those people saying ‘I had [a test] two years ago, I don’t need another one,’” she says.
Early treatment also prevents the spread of HIV to someone else.
In a study last year of 1,700 heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV-positive, researchers found that taking HIV medications decreased the risk of HIV transmission to their partners by 96 percent.
“If your status is HIV-positive, then you know and can get treated,” Dennis says. “If you are HIV-negative, you have peace of mind and can be empowered to stay HIV-negative.”
Take Charge. Take the Test. has launched in 10 cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Memphis, Newark, N.J., New Orleans, Hyattsville, Md., and St. Louis. But, women nationwide can participate.
To find a site where you can be tested for HIV, call 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit @doctorty