Sitting under a dryer with her hair soaked in red dye, Tameka Jackson, 24, listens to health educator Dorienne Canada talk about the female condom.

Jackson watches her demonstrate how to use it. A shampoo assistant at the salon and a security guard, Jackson gets up from under the dryer and makes her way to Canada. She wants more information.

Four out of five newly-infected Chicago women with HIV in 2006 were black, according to the nonprofit AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which has launched an innovative program to educate people about the disease.

Women’s Collaborative is a program designed to increase HIV awareness and primary care services for black and Latina women by using community beauty salons to spread the word. More than 40 establishments, including, barbershops, nail salons, and beauty supply stores, are participating.

“Women are getting their hair done, talking about what’s on TV and their boyfriends; so why not have some HIV prevention education?” said Cynthia Tucker, director of prevention and community partnerships for the foundation.

While black women account for 36.5 percent of Chicago’s population they make up 55.6 percent of local residents living with HIV. But they aren’t receiving the prevention and education they need to reverse these trends, noted Tucker.

Health educators focus on sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) as well as HIV and AIDS during their salon discussions. They also educate women on health issues such as substance abuse, breast cancer and diabetes.

The health educators are employees of the program’s three local partners: Christian Community Health Center, South Side Help Center and Project VIDA. These sites also serve as a referral service for women-and their partners-to get tested.

The program focuses its prevention and testing initiatives on the south and west sides, where the majority of new HIV infections occur.

Of the 5,000 women the collaborative speaks to annually, it tests between 500 and 1,200 people. The program so far has diagnosed seven women with HIV, three of whom were tested at salons. Three HIV-positive men were also identified in salons.

Sexually-transmitted infections and HIV disproportionately affect black Americans because some don’t understand the risks, she added.

In the beauty shops the collaborative frequents, educators have encountered women who believe that HIV is just another sexually-transmitted infection, and they aren’t worried about contracting the virus because they believe a pill eradicates it.

“It’s amazing that in 2009, we still hear that,” said Tucker.

While antiretroviral medications have lengthened the life expectancy of men and women living with HIV, there still is no cure for the virus or AIDS.

“(These women) want to know how they can talk to their partners or husbands about HIV, where they can talk to someone one-on-one about it,” said Tucker. “They want us to dispel the myths.”

Combating trends, raising awareness

Tucker modeled the Women’s Collaborative after an earlier program in Raleigh, N.C. that used beauty salons for discussions about breast cancer and HIV. Men and women, she noted, don’t always feel comfortable going into a health agency.

Many blacks, especially males, will not go to a clinic to be tested, said Canada, who works at Christian Community Health Center in Dolton. But when Canada brings testing to them, she insists they are eager to be tested-and often.

Tucker, who grew up on the far South Side, said promiscuity among some men and women can be a problem in areas such as Englewood.

“It’s not that a lot of men have HIV, but it’s that one man is passing [STIs and HIV] on to a lot of women,” she said.

The Women’s Collaborative recently expanded its salons to include unisex shops and all-male barbershops. In 2007, the program added as a partner agency Project VIDA, a Chicago group that offers individual and group services for Hispanic adults living with HIV or AIDS. The program currently has six Latino salons, two of which are unisex. The program has made minor adjustments, mainly because Latina women spend less time at salons, said Tucker.

But she doesn’t expect the program’s initiatives to expand to include more salons anytime soon.

Earlier this year, program educators began visiting beauty supply stores because of the sputtering economy. The collaborative also found that fewer women are going to salons and are instead purchasing supplies to do their hair at home..