“You know she got AIDS.”

Vernetta Gibson hadn’t even been tested before her peers diagnosed her. They assumed she was infected because her husband died of autoimmune deficiency syndrome. But their judgment was eventually proven correct. At 27 years old, Gibson tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. It wasn’t until her husband lay dying in a coma that she learned of his positive status. Now living with full-blown AIDS, she encourages women to get tested regularly —every six months — and participate in National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NWGHAAD).

NWGHAAD is celebrated to raise awareness of the increasing impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a woman in the United States tests positive for HIV every 35 minutes and one in four Americans living with HIV are women. Less than 15 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S. were among females 13 and older in the mid 1980s, which increased to about 27 percent by 2006.

Coordinated by the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), on March 10 of every year, organizations across the country support, discuss and educate women and girls about prevention, the importance of getting tested, and how to lead a normal, healthy life despite being infected in recognition of NWGHAAD.

“In the beginning, when I was first diagnosed, because of the lack of knowledge, I took it as a death sentence,” Gibson said. “I was a time bomb. I was angry at for not giving me the opportunity to let me make the decision about whether I was going to stay with him. I had that ‘why me’ attitude. I attempted suicide three times.”

She was also on drugs until a few years ago when she was introduced to Women Accepting Responsibility (WAR), a nonprofit organization for minority women at risk for or living with HIV/AIDS. Healthy and optimistic about her life, Gibson, 43, shares her testimony with clients at WAR as a nonmedical case manager.

“I encourage them to get tested and stay tested,” she said. “It can lay dormant in your blood stream from five to 10 years.”

Women and teenage girls accounted for over a quarter of HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2007 and more than 93,900 cumulative deaths from AIDS according to a statement by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Black women in the U.S. contract HIV/AIDS at nearly 15 times the rate of White women, half of the estimated 33.4 million people living with HIV in 2008 were female worldwide, and HIV was the leading cause of disease and death for women of childbearing age, the statement said.

“Women and teenage girls most often acquire HIV through sex with an infected male partner,” Fauci said. “The early diagnosis and prompt treatment of HIV infection helps prevent the destructive impact of the virus on the immune system and contribute to the prolongation of life. In addition, a woman’s chance of transmitting HIV to others is lessened by treatment of her infection.”

Black Educational AIDS Project (BEAP) Project Manager Sally Cherry points out that some women contract the virus by having sex with men who are secretly having sex with other men, and also through drug abuse.

“AIDS is 100 percent preventable,” Cherry said. “If you have not been exposed we want to give you information to keep you from being at risk. If you have it, we want to help you stop the spread. If you test positive, you can get treated. It’s just a constant education because some people, no matter how many times you say it, can’t hear it enough.”

In addition to women being up-to-date with HIV tests, it is also important that their partners get tested before engaging in unprotected sex.

Unfortunately, Gibson learned this lesson the hard way.