On March 4th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a new social media initiative – called “i know” – to encourage young African-American adults ages 18-24 to talk openly and often about HIV. “i know” features public service announcements starring actor Jamie Foxx, and utilizes text messaging and some of the most popular social media – including Facebook and Twitter – to raise the volume of young African-American voices in the fight against HIV.
We sat down with CDC’s Dr. Kevin Fenton and AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent to discuss the initiative and the HIV epidemic among young people. Dr. Fenton is the Director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention and directs the federal government’s national HIV prevention efforts. Ms. Broadbent was born with HIV in 1984 and has devoted her life to HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. She has shared her story on national television and radio programs – including “Oprah” and “Good Morning America” – and was the keynote speaker at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto. She also spoke at BET Networks’ Women’s Summit: LEADING WOMEN DEFINED, March 10th-12th.
Why is the “i know” initiative needed at this moment in the HIV epidemic?
People don't talk about HIV anymore. Today, people are living with AIDS – they are not dying at an alarming rate like they did in the 80s and 90s. When death is in front of you, you want to know how you can save your life, and so in previous decades we would talk about HIV and talk about it and talk about it. But because of medicines, people have become complacent. A lot of people think that if they get HIV, they can just take a pill and everything will be okay. People don’t understand how costly it is. You have to go to the doctor all the time. If you get sick and you work, you can't go to work. It just makes your life more complicated. I believe it’s important to let people know the real deal. You see me today, and I look healthy. But you didn't see me yesterday when I was coughing up stuff and was feeling really sick. When it comes to HIV, the only way we can get to the truth and help each other change our behaviors is if we talk about it.
HIV is a crisis in the black community and a huge problem among young people. While blacks represent just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for almost half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S., as well as nearly half of new infections each year. More than one-third of all new HIV infections are among people under 30 years old, and young black gay and bisexual men are particularly hard hit. Young people also have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which can increase the risk of HIV transmission. It’s clear that to end the national HIV epidemic, we need to empower young people to get involved in the fight against HIV and to use their voices to speak out about the disease. What’s exciting about this particular moment is that there are new ways for young people to communicate with each other about topics they care about – from posting status updates on their Facebook pages to tweeting on Twitter. “i know” takes advantage of these technologies to spread the word about HIV.
How is HIV viewed these days among younger people? Is HIV being taken seriously?
We are definitely concerned that young people don’t see HIV as a threat. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that concern has declined over the last decade, and I see evidence of this in the conversations I have with young people across the country. It’s absolutely critical that we combat complacency, and make sure that one fact is clear: HIV remains a serious and deadly disease, but one that can be prevented. The goal of “i know” is to empower young people to make HIV a part of their day-to-day discussions and to keep attention on the disease.
I think young people have heard about HIV, but it’s not really in their face like it used to be. It’s not in the schools, it’s not on TV like it used to be, and it’s not on the internet. We only discuss it maybe once a year – on World AIDS Day. They show people on music videos hooking up all the time, but they don’t show them with a box of condoms. Why not show that box of condoms? Young people think about it, but it’s not in their face like it needs to be. You can’t tell if somebody has HIV. I mean, there’s not a neon light that flashes if you have HIV. There’s so much we can do to make young people more aware of HIV and to help us think about safe sex.
3. The focus of “i know” is on encouraging young people to talk about HIV online and in their daily conversations. Why is talking so important?
Everybody loves to talk. We talk all the time. For young people, if we don't know the answer to something, especially when it comes to sex, we ask around, and we talk to our friends about it. A lot of people know about HIV/AIDS, but they don’t really know. The more we can talk about it, hopefully, the more accurate information we will be putting out there. We need to have an open dialogue about HIV to bring an end to the epidemic. Talking creates awareness, and awareness will make you think and be more cautious and be safe. Today, a lot of young people are using the internet to talk to each other, and Facebook and Twitter, which are a part of “i know,” are very popular. If a young person like me sees something on Facebook or Twitter, they may join the conversation and then they will think more about how it relates to them.
Research shows that the simple act of talking about HIV has the power to help end this epidemic. By regularly talking about HIV, we can help reduce the stigma and discrimination that has surrounded the disease and kept too many people from seeking HIV prevention, testing, and treatment. We can help increase knowledge about how HIV can be transmitted and how it can be prevented. And, finally, and maybe most importantly, through our conversations about HIV we can help motivate each other to actually take the steps necessary to protect each other from HIV. Simple conversations with friends about the importance of condoms could lead them to make the choice to use protection the next time they have sex – a choice that could save their lives.
Why are African-Americans so affected by the disease?
There are many complex reasons that explain the heavy impact of HIV among African-Americans. First, because the rate of HIV in the black community is higher than among other racial groups, African-Americans face a higher risk of being exposed to HIV infection each time they have sex. Second, other sexually transmitted diseases – like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis – are also more common in African-American communities, and make you more susceptible to HIV. And finally, there are a range of economic and social factors including poverty, limited access to health care, stigma, homophobia and discrimination that put black men and women at risk. We’ve really got to address all of these factors to put an end to the epidemic.
For a lot of young people, we don’t have anyone to really talk to us about HIV, and there are so many factors in African-American communities that really impact us, that HIV/AIDS is really put on the back burner. We think HIV is everybody else’s problem. We think, “I don’t do drugs, I’m not gay.” But it can happen to anyone. I think we need to wake up as a community – we need to see this is hitting our community harder than any other community. We need to teach ourselves self-love and self-respect. If we don’t practice safe sex – if we have one-night stands and don’t use protection – then that’s not self-love. I believe that in the African-American community, we have to start saying, “It’s okay to use a condom. It’s okay to ask for a condom.”
How can young people make a difference in the fight against HIV?
Young people can make a big difference. Young people, whether they recognize it or not, are the future. They have a say in a lot of what is happening today. Young people, if they research the issue, if they know how close to home it hits them, I think they would get more involved – whether that’s in an event or getting their family involved to make a difference in the fight against HIV. Young people listen to young people. They can grab their attention. It’s so important that they’re involved in trying to put an end to the spread of HIV/AIDS. I was born with HIV and am now living with AIDS – I want people to look at my life and struggle as a warning that you don’t want this to happen to you. So please talk to your friends and partners about HIV and make wise choices – get tested, know your partner’s status, and make sure you’re being safe – because this disease will not only affect you but also those you love and others around you. The choices my mom made are still affecting me 25 years later.
Without a doubt, young people are our greatest weapon in the fight against HIV. They have the power to mobilize their peers to make real change in their behaviors. There are three steps that every young person can take. First, get involved with the “i know” initiative – log on to the website at www.actagainstaids.org, became a fan on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and sign up to receive text messages. Second, start talking about HIV – online and in your daily conversations. Talk to your friends about the impact of HIV in your community, steps that can be taken to decrease risk for HIV, and the importance of ending the stigma of the disease. And finally, take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you’re having sex, get tested for HIV and use condoms consistently.