Mildred McDonald was getting her annual physical in 1995 when the nurse asked whether she would like to be tested for HIV.
"I was in a relationship with a man I loved dearly," McDonald recalls. "I was like, 'Lady, please, you must be joking ... but, sure, come on with it.' "
McDonald, 30 at the time, was working the switchboard for a Jackson cleaners when someone from the state Department of Health called and told her she had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. She thought it was one of her friends pulling a prank. "But then the person said, 'Would you believe me if I read you your Social Security number? 428 ...' " McDonald says, the memory glazing her eyes. "When I heard those numbers, my world shattered. I was in a committed relationship. How could this happen to me?"
McDonald's partner, who eventually died from the disease, unknowingly passed it to her.
McDonald is one of a growing number of African-American women who have been infected with HIV. About 50 percent of those with HIV will develop AIDS within 10 years. Recent statistics reveal black women represent almost 70 percent of new HIV cases in the United States each year. In Mississippi, black women represent about 25 percent of the new HIV cases, health officials said. As of Dec. 1, 2003, Mississippi had 7,387 residents living with HIV. Of those, 1,072 are males and 2,314 are female. Another 4,001 are in those considered transgender.
Many Americans are oblivious to the problem. Vice President Dick Cheney said during an October debate he was "not aware" of the toll AIDS is taking on black American women.
"Believe me, if I got it, nobody's safe," says McDonald, who has a teenage daughter. "People want to label folks with HIV as nasty. If you tell them you got it from your mate, they don't want to hear that. "It's either you were out on the street, sleeping with five or six men a night, or you were doing (intravenous) drugs. The truth is too boring, or it hits a little too close to home.
"HIV touches everybody's world. The only way it doesn't is if you don't have sex — period."