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D.C. women with HIV: The new face of the city’s AIDS epidemic

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Candice Jones was on the couch when she heard the yelling coming from the kitchen.

“When are you going to tell her? You have to tell her!” she heard. “If you don’t tell her, I will.”

And Jones wondered: “Tell me what? That he’s a serial killer? He’s an ax murderer?”

She couldn’t imagine what her boyfriend’s mother wanted him to tell her.

Turns out, it was a big one. The boyfriend was HIV-positive.

And Jones, then 25 and with the man she thought would be hers forever, was pregnant with his child. “He knew he was positive and never told me,” she told me.

This week, as more than 20,000 researchers, activists, leaders and legislators meet in Washington for the 19th International AIDS Conference, there are about 14,500 people living with HIV or AIDS in the District. That’s nearly 3 percent of our population. And although the District has infection levels higher than many African countries, the overall rate has been slowly dropping in the past four years.

Except among women such as Jones.

The rate of HIV infection among heterosexual African American women in the poorest neighborhoods of the District nearly doubled in the past two years, from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent, according to a study released last month.

For the first decades of its 31-year reign of terror, HIV/AIDS was largely associated with white, gay men, an association that became a stereotype as the disease spread across populations and the world. But today, and here in Washington, Jones is a far more accurate snapshot of the epidemic: a heterosexual African American woman.

Thanks to advances in drugs and treatment, HIV is not necessarily fatal anymore. But the nationwide rate is blooming among the poor and disenfranchised, people who are struggling with housing and health care. And when you don’t have money for a home or for food, getting your annual HIV test isn’t high on the list.

Jones, however, had been careful. She had herself tested every year. She was in college part time and working for a temp agency. You might remember her if you ever ran into the Fed-Ex/Kinko’s in Georgetown, desperate for help on a last-minute project. She worked there for years.

And for years, her relationship was monogamous and, seemingly, solid. But it turned out that her boyfriend had been HIV-positive for a while. He contracted the virus through a needle while he was addicted to heroin, something else he had not told Jones about.

“So much came out after that, I found out all these things about his past,” Jones says.

Their 2-year-old son is negative, as is their second child, an 8-month-old who voraciously takes two bottles back to back at lunch.

“That’s one of the things I could never do. I couldn’t breast-feed,” Jones explains as she wrestles to get the second bottle out of a diaper bag. Breast-feeding would have risked transmitting the infection to her babies.

But why did she have a second child after learning that she and her former boyfriend were HIV-positive?

“It’s not a death sentence,” she replies. The medication she was taking to keep the virus at bay made mother-to-child transmission far less likely.

Indeed, no HIV-positive child has been born in the District since 2009.

“I just have to be careful with the kids, you know, when they have a cut or I have a cut,” she said. “And I have to take really good care of myself. I have to stay healthy, take the medicines, eat right.”

She has embraced her condition because it has given her a sense of purpose.

“I know it sounds really strange, but in some ways, it was the best thing that happened to me,” she said.

Jones spent years in school, taking classes, working part time and trying to find focus. “Now that I am HIV-positive, and I have these kids, I have something I’m really passionate about. I love talking to women about this.”

Her new career centers around her work with the Women’s Collective, an advocacy group in the District for HIV-positive women and the place where Jones went when she was desperate for help.

She wants to make it her mission to tell other women: “Don’t be naive. Look out for yourself.”

Her message is not only about prevention but also about empowerment. There have been about 35 million deaths worldwide from the epidemic, but there are also more than 34 million HIV-positive people in the world. Many of them are women like her.

“I want them to look at me,” she said, with a stroller and diaper bag and cute summer dress. “I want them to see that this doesn’t mean it’s the end.”

To read previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/ dvorak.

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