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Group offers black women free HIV testing and health resources during annual event

Group offers black women free HIV testing and health resources during annual event

Group offers black women free HIV testing and health resources during annual event

TeQuan Penny was just 16 years old when he was diagnosed with HIV.

She contracted the virus through sexual relations with a partner who was “much older” than her, and who did not reveal to her that she was carrying the virus. When she contracted meningitis two years later, her immune system was so ill-equipped to fight off the infection that she nearly died.

“And that’s how I ended up losing my vision, because I had a retinal detachment,” he said. “I see light and shadow, but I don’t have a retina.”

Penny, now 44, was caring for her 2-year-old daughter and battling depression when she went blind. With HIV treatment and support, Penny gradually improved her physical and mental health.

That now drives her work at The Afiya Center, where she provides support and resources to Black women living in poverty who are at high risk of contracting the virus.

The Afiya Center, an HIV prevention and reproductive justice organization, held its 11th annual free testing event on June 29, the Saturday closest to National HIV Testing Day, which was June 27. The event, held in South Dallas, aims to bring resources to a community where few can be found, organizers said.

In 2022, Texas led the nation in the number of new positive cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 18% of those cases reported in Dallas County.

The HIV crisis, both in Texas and nationally, disproportionately affects Black people, according to CDC data.

Black men who have sex with men account for 25% of cases in the broader Dallas region, which includes Dallas, Collin, Delta, Denton, Ellis, Hunt, Kaufman and Rockwall counties, according to the CDC.

One in 156 black women in Texas is living with HIV, compared with one in 2,146 white women in the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Marsha Jones, founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, said she started holding the annual testing event about a decade ago to address a need in Black neighborhoods.

Marsha Jones, executive director of The Afiya Center, speaks to The Dallas Morning News during an HIV testing event at Glendale Park, Saturday, June 29, 2024, in Dallas. The center is hosting the event on the weekend closest to National HIV Testing Day in June.(Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

The event started small, in a parking lot, with community members bringing portable grills to roast hot dogs and offer them to those who came to get tested. Jones was concerned that no one would show up that first year of the event, which was held during the winter when it snowed.

But dozens of people showed up despite the bad weather, and that’s when she knew “we were onto something,” Jones recalled.

This year’s event drew about 150 attendees and has turned into a lively street party with free contraceptives, information on counseling, mammograms and women’s health, and loud hip-hop music that got attendees dancing and singing along.

“I’m an old-school street organizer,” Jones said, laughing.

Helen Zimba, director of HIV programmes at the Afiya Centre, said the most common mistake people make when trying to understand HIV is not focusing on the root causes of the disease.

HIV is transmitted through contact with certain bodily fluids during sexual intercourse, but also through blood and breast milk. The virus is also often transmitted by sharing needles, syringes or drug-using equipment.

“There are things that happen that cause people to get HIV,” Zimba said, adding that difficult life circumstances, such as not having a safe place to live, can be a contributing factor because it puts people in vulnerable situations.

HIV can be fatal if left untreated and drastically weakens the immune system. If the virus progresses to AIDS, it can leave the body defenseless against infections and diseases.

Michelle Anderson, 54, a board member of the Afiya Center, said she found out she was HIV positive at age 29.

Anderson has spoken openly about her own traumas, including sexual abuse, poverty and drug addiction, which she says contributed to her eventually dating someone who didn’t tell her he was HIV positive.

Her own life experience — and the work she has done to overcome it — has given her a deep compassion for others who are left to fend for themselves on the streets, she said.

“I want to help other Black women because the information I received was misleading and did not reflect my experiences as a Black woman living in the United States,” she said, emphasizing that women should be aware of how race, gender and class impact risk levels.

Anderson became the first known HIV-positive woman to compete in a mainstream beauty pageant and win a national title, being crowned Ms. Plus America in 2011. Anderson said access to treatment saved her life and that breaking free from the stigma of HIV “freed her soul.”

That’s why she works to provide the same services to young black women who go through similar experiences every day.

Helen Zimba, director of The Afiya Center’s HIV program, speaks to The Dallas Morning News during an HIV testing event in Glendale Park, Saturday, June 29, 2024, in Dallas. The center hosted the event on the weekend closest to National HIV Testing Day, June 27.(Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

Zimba, who is also living with HIV, said he wants people to understand that the virus is no longer a death sentence. HIV treatment now allows many people to live longer and healthier lives.

“For me, having worked in this field for a long time, we used to talk to people about death,” said Zimba, who has been with the center for nearly a decade. “We would literally say to them, ‘Well, do you have a will? ’ That was the first thing we had to talk about. ‘Do you have a will? Because you’re going to die. ’”

“That is not the case now,” he said.

After trying three different HIV treatment regimens, Penny found the one that works for her. She now has zero viral load, meaning there is no risk of sexual transmission, and has been married to her husband, who is not HIV positive, for 19 years.

“I want young women to understand that HIV doesn’t have to be part of their story, but if it is, they can still overcome it and continue living,” she said.