Speaking about Pediatric AIDS at the White House
March 22, 2011
Recently I had the honor of speaking at a White House panel discussion for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
, which is being commemorated throughout the month.
It was hosted by the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP)
, the White House office charged with developing our country’s first National HIV/AIDS Strategy. The strategy is a “roadmap” to bring everyone together and guide us in our efforts against the disease here at home.
The meeting was called to identify key challenges and health risks facing today’s women and young girls, and to recommend solutions to reduce the spread of HIV to this population. I was invited to join the panel discussion focusing specifically on prevention.
Cristina in front of the White House. (Photo: EGPAF)
When I was born, my mom didn’t know she was HIV-positive, and unknowingly transmitted the virus to me prenatally. That was more than twenty years ago.
Today, we have almost completely eliminated pediatric HIV domestically, by preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus with early identification and treatment of HIV-positive pregnant women.
However, every year, nearly 200 babies are still born in the United States with HIV, because their mothers have fallen through the cracks. Each one of these pediatric infections is preventable, and each one of these mothers should be receiving the proper treatment and care for HIV.
The fight against HIV/AIDS has not only remained a very personal issue for me, but a growing issue for our country. At the beginning of the epidemic, women only represented 8 percent of infections.
Now that number is about 26 percent.
Education and outreach to vulnerable women and girls is a crucial part of the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially if we’re going to prevent new infections in the next generation of children.
During the discussion, I urged for additional efforts to ensure all women of child-bearing age receive accurate information about HIV and are supported with HIV testing.
Complacency is not an option regarding this issue – it’s critical that we remain vigilant, so that no child is born with HIV in the U.S.
A second prevention component I spoke about was the development of services and support to help HIV-positive individuals of all ages better navigate the complexities of disclosure. When you’ve grown up with HIV all your life, disclosing your status to someone you have feelings toward is a very difficult challenge—especially when you’re a teenager or young adult.
I urged local community groups, nonprofits, service centers, and health care and educational settings to consider this type of support, targeted to the needs of the communities they serve.
At the meeting, I had the opportunity to meet with many leaders in the domestic HIV/AIDS movement – including Congresswoman Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), HIV researcher Dr. Mardge Cohen, and another Ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Regan Hofmann
, Editor-in-Chief of POZ Magazine
I was especially moved by the words of Congresswoman Christensen who was the keynote speaker:
“We are daughters not only of our biological mothers, but of our ideological mothers, our political mothers, our activist moms,” she began. “They are women such as Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Dorothy Height… Elizabeth Glaser…”
Cristina (left) speaks on a White House panel for National
Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
It was great to hear Elizabeth Glaser’s name among this list of incredible women. Elizabeth's strength and passion for the community of children with HIV/AIDS helped inspire me to find my own voice and become an Ambassador for the Foundation
“Women young and old have done extraordinary things, and in doing so, have changed or improved the world for all of us,” Congresswoman Christensen continued. “They knew or came to know their power, and we must know and use ours.”
It is this enduring spirit—to reach for the power within to make the world a better place—that has shaped the work of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and reminds us all of the great things that can be accomplished by the individual.
Remember, we as women— mothers, daughters, students, educators, care providers, and community leaders— have the power to define our world.
We need to provide our young women and teenagers with the education, confidence, and communication skills to help define and guide their own sexual experiences and health.
For women of all ages, this is our time to remind the country how important our issues are, and the specific challenges we face when infected, affected, or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
Talk to the women around you about these issues – not just on National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the month during which it’s commemorated – but on every day of the year.
Cristina Pena is an Ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She will begin a Master of Public Policy program at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall.