Commentary: World AIDS Day 2011

Today marks World AIDS Day and while this pandemic was once thought to be a "white gay disease," it now resembles a face that looks like mine and yours.

Today marks World AIDS Day and while this pandemic does impact the developing world, it is crucial to recognize that this is a serious issue right here in the United States. And what was once thought to be a "white gay disease," now resembles a face that looks like mine and yours.


And we know the statistics: AIDS is the number one killer of Black women ages 24 to 35. Black men who have sex with men (MSM) have the highest HIV rate among all racial groups of MSM. Overall, while African-Americans make up a mere 14 percent of the overall U.S. population, we account for almost half of all HIV infections that are diagnosed each year. And to make matters worse, we are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV and AIDS at the same time than any other racial group, meaning we wait getting tested until we are already really sick.


The question now remains: What are you going to do about it?


If you are not an activist marching in the streets or a lobbyist trying to convince Congress to make better policies for people living with HIV, that doesn't mean you cannot make a difference. There are plenty of things that you can do:


Educate yourself about this disease: Knowledge is power and you can't protect yourself from HIV without information. And unfortunately, it's the ignorance, stigma and silence that are killing us. There are plenty of websites out there with important information about this epidemic. Once you are armed with this information, educate people around you: Your parents, elders, friends, family members, the women at the beauty salon and the men in the barber shop. Be the knowledge broker in your community!


Get tested for HIV: You have to get tested and know your status — this is the difference between life and death. And don't get tested just once, but every year. And for those who have health insurance, exactly when you go and get a physical is CRUCIAL for you to tell your doctor to test you for HIV, because if you don't, they may not be testing you. And whatever you do, don't allow any doctor talk you out of getting tested. Remember, open up your mouth and advocate for yourself — you deserve to know your status.


Same goes for STDs. Having undiagnosed and untreated STDs such as syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea and Chlamydia increase your chances of contracting HIV. And unfortunately, STDs in people, especially men, show NO symptoms. So it's crucial to get tested and ask for these tests.


If you'd rather go to a clinic or testing center, learn where you can get tested at


Use condoms, every time: Yes, sex without condoms feels better. No one is denying that, but not using condoms can come with huge consequences. Talk to your partner about HIV, STDs, condoms and testing PRIOR to getting hot and heavy. And no, not everyone wants to hear about condoms and some will try to talk you out of it. But if someone really cares about you, they will want to protect you. Here's a cheat sheet for new and old couples to help you negotiate condom use with your partner and how to talk about STDs and getting tested.


Have more compassion for people who are living with HIV/AIDS: HIV/AIDS stigma is real and can be very painful for people who are living with this disease. HIV positive people are no different than HIV-negative people — except that they have are living with a virus. You cannot contract HIV by being in the same room, sharing the same toilets or drinking out of the same cup. So get over yourself and have some compassion.


My suggestion: Volunteer at your local HIV/AIDS service organization to learn more about the community. And quiet as it's kept: You might not even have to go that far — you would be surprised at how many of us have family members who are positive, yet we have no clue. Now is the time to open your hearts and minds.


In the end, this disease doesn't have to be our destiny. But if we continue to sit around and do nothing, expecting someone else to save us, it will be.


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


BET Health News — We go beyond the music and entertainment world to bring you important medical information and health-related tips of special relevance to Blacks in the U.S. and around the world.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/GettyImages)

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