Commentary: Fighting to Be Free From HIV/AIDS

Rep. Charles Rangel urges African-Americans to get educated, tested, treated and involved in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is a crisis out of control in Black communities throughout the United States of America. The continued severity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black communities cannot be underestimated. Our challenge is to continue saving the lives of the Black people by working locally, regionally, nationally and internationally to reduce the instances of new infections.

There are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, including more than 500,000 who are Black. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks are disproportionately affected by HIV. Of all races, Blacks have the highest rates of HIV infection in the nation. Blacks represent 14 percent of the U.S. population yet they account for nearly 44 percent of all new infections in 2010.

Today, we have more opportunities to reduce the burden of HIV and address multiple issues related to this disease. For 13 years, Feb. 7 has been designated as National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to promote national HIV national testing and treatment and community mobilization. The theme for 2013, Our ancestors fought that we might be free — even from HIV, is timely as we continue to encourage Black people to get educated, get tested, get treated and get involved, and to connect the past with the present and begin to take better care of themselves and one another. 

The theme reflects 31 years of the epidemic. Historically we pay homage to our ancestors for their existence and the milestones they paved for our many freedoms. Likewise, the epidemic has claimed the lives of over 245,000 Blacks and we also pay homage to those individuals who have lost their lives when there was no access to treatment or medications.

Why are Black people still fearful of this disease? Stigma, discrimination and shame remain among the top fears. These fears negatively impact our abilities to provide social support to those individuals and families infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day encourages events that mobilize individuals to serve as ambassadors in their respective communities and be the voice and face for education, testing, involvement and leadership.

There are approximately 129,000 New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. Seventy-seven percent of those living with HIV/AIDS are over 40, with 42 percent over the age of 50, reflecting a growing number of older Americans living with this disease. New York HIV/AIDS organizations have proudly served those citizens living with this disease and have been voices of credibility in helping persons access testing and treatment.

As a member of Congress, I am aware of the devastating impact of this disease as it continually affects the Black community disproportionately. I introduced the National Black Clergy for Elimination of HIV/AIDS, which authorizes various agencies to expand and increase programs for HIV/AIDS education, prevention, testing and care/treatment, specifically with respect to African-Americans. In addition, I have co-sponsored a resolution relating to the goals and ideals of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Each of us has a part to play in fighting this disease and to pay homage to the ancestors by no longer being silent. By being voices for change, we continue to be free — even from HIV/AIDS. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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