Chances are you've heard the statistics: Every 10 minutes, someone in the U.S. is infected with H-I-V and 1 out of every 16 African American men will face an H.I.V./AIDS diagnosis in his lifetime. The research is bleak, if not depressing but for the first time in our history, the White House has devoted a nearly all-day meeting to address the scourge of this deadly disease that is victimizing black men in our community at a rate that rivals undeveloped countries.
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The Obama Administration investigated the burden HIV/AIDS has placed on black men by gathering some of the leading researchers, stake-holders and community-based groups at the White House for a round-table discussion. The event, hosted by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, started off in the typical manner. White House Senior Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes hosted the panel on Federal HIV prevention and care efforts targeting black men. She presented the staggering statistics that put the depth of this problem into real perspective. But Barnes is also painfully aware that the problem may be far worse than even the numbers can support. "Twenty percent of those who are infected don't even know they have it," she told me outside the West Wing. "And even after they are diagnosed," she said, "Many still lack the health care they need to treat their illness."
But soon the dialogue took a drastic shift into keep-it-real territory as community-leaders who deal with this problem first-hand revealed their struggles fighting what can only be described as an uphill battle. In the war against AIDS, they are the first line of defense. But during a time when budgets are being cut and donors are closing their wallets, many are ill-prepared to make a tangible impact. Marcus Murray heads Project Brotherhood, a Chicago-based group that runs a health care clinic targeting young men. He enlists young people to reach out and educate their peers, but admits more could be done if he had the resources he desperately needs.
But the discussion also revealed some glimmers of hope. If there can be a positive note when delving into such a weighty subject, it would seem that public awareness is one area where momentum is building. In short, panelists say people are talking about AIDS more, a sign that perhaps the culture is more comfortable bringing such topics to the surface. But spreading the word about risk, prevention and treatment will be key.
The Obama administration has backed an aggressive public awareness campaign called "Act Against AIDS" that will target young people ages 18-24. Billboard, TV, radio, print and internet ads can be seen across the country encouraging youth to know their status and get tested. Another campaign is headed by the Black AIDS Institute's Phil Wilson. His effort, "Greater Than AIDS," is a partnership with the Kaiser Foundation. Wilson says the campaign has raised awareness and touts one neighborhood in San Francisco where placement of one billboard advertising free HIV testing increased the number of people getting checked by 500 percent. It is a silver lining in an ominous cloud. But the storm is far from over.
The White House meeting was based on the hope that discussions will lead to actions, and actions will lead to results. In the next few weeks, the White House is expected to announce new efforts to combat the disease and offer care for those infected.