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Lisa K. Fitzpatrick, M.d., Mph, of Howard University
Published: 04 March 2009

This week, the nation celebrates National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I generally shun set-aside days for a cause because awareness on a single day may cause many in society to fail to address the issue the remainder of the year. However, a recent experience in my clinic at the Center for Infectious Diseases Management and Research at Howard University Hospital painfully illustrates why it is necessary for us to honor this day.

Last week, I met a 24-year-old woman with AIDS whose story exemplifies a problem with the way the medical community and we as a nation are caring for HIV/AIDS patients. When I walked into the exam room, the first thing I noticed was her frail frame. She weighed less than 100 pounds and was literally skin and bones.

She clearly needed HIV/AIDS therapy, and she wasn't receiving it. Instead, I learned to my alarm and distress that previous doctors had referred her to hospice care, which is most often a place for those who are dying. That's where she was staying when she came to my office with a hospice caretaker.

Certainly there are cases for which hospice care is appropriate. But this case wasn't one.

The woman before me could be treated, should be treated and was requesting medical treatment but it seemed medical professionals had sent her away to die. I realize that many Americans are not aware of the strides and advances realized in the field of HIV/AIDS medicine since the early 1990s, but I certainly would not expect such lack of awareness from medical providers.

Let's be clear. HIV/AIDS is a treatable disease. We now have over 25 medications to effectively treat HIV. I am appalled that even one provider would miss an opportunity to educate a patient about the availability of HIV treatment.

Under no circumstances should a young, Black woman in the nation's capitol, or any woman, for that matter, be recommended to a service for the dying before she is offered treatment for HIV.

We can do better. We must do better. The circumstances of how this young woman came to be in my clinic are unacceptable. As I honored National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day this week, I was thankful and thrilled that this young woman made her way to our clinic.

But I shudder to think how many others nationwide are out there and are just like her.

By Lisa K. Fitzpatrick, M.D., MPH, associate professor of medicine in infectious diseases at the Howard University College of Medicine.

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