Ever since she was a young child, Dr. Kimberly Smith knew she wanted to be a physician. But it wasn’t until she was pre-med at the University of Michigan in the mid eighties, that it became clear what type of medicine she would practice.
“It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and we were seeing the first cases come in and people were super sick and dying. Remember back then, we didn’t really have treatment or understand the disease,” Smith told Hello Beautiful.
Smith, found herself fascinated by the epidemic, not just by the retrovirus itself, but the way it was impacting Black America despite what journalists were reporting at the time.
“During the early days the media wrote that HIV was solely a gay white man’s disease, but we knew this epidemic was impacting people of color too,” she added.
“So being a political person, I always felt challenged to do work that told the truth about how HIV was ravaging the African-American community.”
That, and she was also captivated by how stigma was often linked to those who were living with HIV/AIDS.
“Socially I was [intrigued] and bothered by the fact that these people were treated like pariahs. There was all this stigma around [having a virus], so I knew early on, I was going to do something to fight the status quo.”
Taking that dedication, tenacity and passion to heart, over the past 30-plus years, Smith has dedicated her life’s work to the epidemic, having provided quality care to folks living with HIV in Chicago and doing clinical research about the disease. She now currently serves as the Vice President of Global Medical Strategy for ViiV Healthcare, an independent pharmaceutical company committed to medicines and research that are completely focused on people affected by HIV/AIDS.
We sat down with Smith to talk about why Black folks should take part in clinical trials, why we have debunk harmful AIDS myths in our community and why every Black woman needs to know her status.
Hello Beautiful: Even in 2018, there’s still a lot of medical mistrust and myths out there about HIV, especially about treatment. Being a Black woman working on the clinical side of things, what is the biggest untruth you want to debunk?
Dr. Kimberly Smith: There’s a few. One of then being that treatment kills you. Yes, before we didn’t have the best treatment before—it was harsh and had serious side effects. But over the past twenty years, treatment has really evolved. You can be on a regimen where you take just one pill a day and can live a long and healthy life.
How has this treatment evolution positively impacted Black women?
So much so, especially since Black women have it tougher than anyone else. If you have to take multiple pills a day at different times of the day that can be hard for Black women who are mothers, wives, caretakers and have jobs that make it hard for them stop what they are doing to take all this medication. But with one pill, they find it easier to prioritize their care, because for Black women, HIV is not the only thing going on in their lives. The more we can simplify HIV treatment, the better it is for Black women living with HIV.
What about people who believe that you have to be wealthy to get treatment?
I hear that a lot of this and it’s heartbreaking, especially since it couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether it’s ViiV, government programs or other programs, there are ways to help offset the cost of meds, regardless of insurance and income. So don’t let money stop you from getting linked into care.
With that being said, why is it so crucial for us, despite our misgivings, that we also take part in clinical trials?
It’s so important. Before I started working for a pharmaceutical company, I was always that voice saying, you need to include people of color and women in your studies. If we are not a part of those trials, they aren’t answering the questions that are relevant to us. Think about it: If you do a study that has all white males, we don’t learn how that medication will affect [other demographics]. We have to all be at the table to know how it affects us.
Now that I am in this position at ViiV, I ensure that our trials are inclusive and it’s a great feeling.
Shifting gears. Many of us are getting physicals each year, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting tested for HIV. Why do all of us need to be vocal about our desire to get tested for HIV?
People think that because they are getting their blood drawn and the doctor hasn’t talked to them about HIV that means they are fine. But in reality, you have to give verbal consent to be tested for HIV. And in some states you still have sign an actual consent form. So, if you are not saying outright, “I want to be tested for HIV” you are not being tested for HIV.
I had an experience where during an annual gynecological exam with a new doctor, I asked for a HIV test and in return, the doc asked me, “What are doing that you need a HIV test?” I felt so ashamed and ended up not getting tested. I can only imagine how many other Black women fall through those same testing cracks.
I would tell any Black women who is dissuaded by a doctor for asking for a HIV to test to push back. Remind them that Black women account for the majority of new HIV infections among women every year and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that we should get tested at least once a year, depending on your risk factors. Plus, it’s their job to test you if you ask.
You should be empowered to know your HIV and your STI status too. You also have to communicate that you want to be tested for other infections including syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea. Just let them you know you want to be empowered by knowing everything about your health.
What about are words of advice for women who don’t believe they are at risk?
I hear women say that you have to be a sex worker or sleep with a gay man in order to be infected and that isn’t true either. Most of the women I treated had husbands or were in what they believed were monogamous relationships [with men who identified as being heterosexual].
So if you just test negative, that’s fantastic, but do what you need to do in order to stay negative and this means talking to your partner openly about sexual history and getting testing together if that’s possible.
In the end, what else should we know about HIV?
If you unfortunately test positive, please know that the earlier you start treatment the better you will be. That will help your HIV from progressing to AIDS, can reverse the damage to your immune system and bring your viral load down, hopefully so you can be undetectable. And being undetectable means you drastically lower your risk of transmitting the virus to others, which is a wonderful thing.
Now that’s a word!