Speaking of Health

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Photo Courtesy Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey
Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey Takes a Different Approach to HIV/AIDS Education and Promoting Better Health
by Chip Alfred

You can call her a health expert, lecturer, author, community organizer, activist or educator, but one thing you would never call her is passive. Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey is one dynamo doctor dedicated to improving the health of our nation, focusing on HIV/AIDS, women’s health, and the African-American community. Known affectionately as “Dr. Sharon,” she’s an in-demand public speaker and frequent guest on national radio and television shows, and often quoted in national publications including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Essence. What’s unique about Allison-Ottey is some of the unconventional approaches she takes getting her message out.

In 1995, with her husband Dr. Colin C. Ottey, she cofounded the COSHAR Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that educates and empowers communities to increase health awareness and outreach. Allison-Ottey believes that in the African-American community, churches are often the best places to start the dialogue about HIV/AIDS. “African Americans will talk about diabetes or high blood pressure, but we’re not as open to a person saying ‘I am HIV-positive and have been for years.’ The stigma about AIDS is killing us,” she says.

COSHAR established the National Health Ministries Network, a coalition of more than 9,000 churches and community organizations—inclusive of all faiths. Some member organizations are sponsoring free HIV testing drives, encouraging pastors to speak openly about HIV/AIDS prevention, and helping dispel myths and clarify misconceptions.

“In 2011, we have a face of who HIV/AIDS is, and it’s not the face of the woman next door,” says Allison-Ottey. “Particularly in the African-American, Latino, and other minority communities, we see, number one, a homosexual man, a man who has sex with men (MSM), or a female prostitute or a woman who has slept around and is on drugs.”

The Centers for Disease Control paints quite a different picture. According to the 2008 HIV Surveillance Report, MSMs account for more than half of all new HIV infections nationwide. African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV. The rate of new HIV infection for African-American men is six times as high as that of white men. The rate of new infection for African-American women is nearly fifteen times as high as that of white women.

In her novel, All I Ever Did Was Love a Man, Allison-Ottey hopes to change the “face” of HIV for African-American women, hoping they will see someone just like them. Sabrena, the central character in the book, is a divorced African-American mother of two who falls in love and learns she is HIV-positive. “I have created a new genre—fiction with a purpose. The backdrop for the book is how a woman deals with a major health crisis and reevaluates her life,” says Allison-Ottey, who would like readers to “walk the journey with this character.”

At the end of the book, Allison-Ottey devotes twenty pages to information about HIV/AIDS, including statistics, answers to frequently asked questions, a breakdown of the most commonly prescribed medications, followed by some general advice on how to talk to your doctor or health provider. Radio One’s Cathy Hughes says, “Thank you Sharon Allison-Ottey for making a cruel reality so easily digestible and understandable. This book will help a lot of women.”

Allison-Ottey also penned the nonfiction book, Is That Fried Chicken Wing Worth It? The concept for this book was conceived during a workout session when her personal trainer explained she would have to do hundreds of stomach crunches just to burn off the fat from eating one chicken wing. That was her wake-up call. Allison-Ottey, who says if she had a magic wand she would turn herself into a size 6, describes the book as “a get real approach to dealing with weight—not a diet, but a mindset.”

A North Carolina native, Allison-Ottey attended North Carolina Central University and East Carolina University School of Medicine, where she learned firsthand about dealing with adversity and struggling to be heard. “As a black female in eastern North Carolina with a big mouth, I always tried to address the issues and that didn’t always play well,” she says. “There was definitely a ‘good ole boys’ crew who were friends with professors, even golfed with them; and you knew that you did not belong in that group. Outside of race there was the gender factor. I never heard of a male medical student being called ‘sugar’ or being asked to change a bedpan.”

Allison-Ottey persevered, earned her medical degree, and eventually settled in Baltimore. There she serves as director of health and community initiatives at COSHAR, advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness and runs her own greeting card line, Cards by Dr. Sharon, featuring health improvement tips on the back of each card. “Nobody wants to read a health message, so I sneak it in,” she says. “Having a health message has been consistent in everything I do.”

Encouraged by the progress being made facilitating discussions about HIV prevention, early detection and mobilizing African-American communities, Allison-Ottey admits there’s still work to do changing attitudes and battling ignorance. “For too long we have looked at a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence,” she says. “We’ve also looked at it as ‘I’m untouchable.’”

An African-American couple caring for their adult daughter dying from AIDS shared their story with Allison-Ottey. The family made sure their daughter had her own plates, her own dishes washed separately from everyone else’s, her own chair that nobody else used, and her clothes washed outside the home. They thought they were doing what was right, but they were actually treating their daughter like a leper. Instead of feeling wanted and loved “the woman was being pushed away every day,” says Allison-Ottey.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to Allison-Ottey, are young African Americans who engage in unsafe sex as they see more people living with HIV than dying from it, justifying their behavior with the mindset, “Well, if I get HIV, I’ll just take the drugs and I’ll be good.” Because there are so many different levels of HIV education and awareness among African Americans, Allison-Ottey emphasizes the need for tailored messages for each sector of the community.

She also stresses the importance of having strong support systems in place and facing your challenges head-on—especially when dealing with a major health crisis. But when it comes to the subject of a woman loving a man and not being able to ask her partner to wear a condom, Allison-Ottey has a take-no-prisoners reaction. “If you can be buck naked with him and he can see your cellulite, you can’t say the word ‘condom’? You need to give up if you can’t talk about it with the man you’re that intimate with.”

On World AIDS Day in 2010, Allison-Ottey delivered the keynote address at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, addressing government workers, and healthcare and nonhealthcare professionals on bringing awareness to the fight against HIV/AIDS. “HIV does not define you,” she says. “You define the role HIV will play in your life.”

For more information visit Dr. Sharon’s Web sites at sharondeniseallisonottey.com and cosharfoundation.org.

Chip Alfred interviewed poet Emanuel Xavier for the August 2010 cover story.

January 2011