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Brenda's Journey

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Summer 1997

Brenda's Journey
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On December 19, three months before her due date, Brenda went to her OB-GYN clinic in West L.A. for a routine prenatal checkup. The doctor told her all her tests were fine. Except one. He held out a slip of paper. "This is the HIV test," he said. Brenda put her hands over her eyes and cried out. I'm going to die, she thought.

The doctor was kind, reassuring. He said he couldn't predict how long she would live but that for now she was quite healthy; that the chances of her baby being infected were small. He explained that because she was HIV-positive, he couldn't deliver the baby. He would refer her to UCLA, where there is a clinic devoted to pregnant women with HIV and their children.

Brenda called her mother. "I need you to come," she told her. Alma was at work. "I can't leave," she said. "Tell me what it is." Brenda said, "I just came back from the clinic and I've got HIV." Brenda started crying; her mother cried, too.

Fifteen years into the AIDS epidemic, the face of the disease is turning feminine. Despite a decline in AIDS-related deaths for the first time in the United States last year, despite a slowing in the number of gay men contracting HIV, despite what researchers and activists alike agree has been a watershed year in AIDS treatment, a sobering trend has emerged. More women are getting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, than ever before.

As of December 1996, more than 85,000 of the 581,429 people reported with AIDS were women. Two years earlier, the figure was a little over 58,000. In 1996, women accounted for 20 percent of newly reported AIDS cases, more than double a decade earlier.

For women between the ages of 25 and 44, AIDS and other HIV-related illnesses are now the fourth leading cause of death. For African American women, AIDS is the number one killer (see sidebar). "When you look at the population of women infected with HIV," says Ann Johiro, a nurse practitioner with UCLA's Care Clinic, "the percentages of minority women versus nonminority women are incredible." Indeed, though Blacks and Hispanics represent only 21 percent of all American women, in 1995, a staggering 76 percent of women with AIDS were of those two groups.

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