Posted Oct. 17, 2007 — We’ve all heard the numbers. African Americans are contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, at twice the rate of other Americans. But the latest studies say that HIV is also more common among U.S. Blacks than any other racial group in America, and we’re dying more often from the disease.
No matter how you slice it, the news is grim all the way around. HIV infection rates continue to rise for Black youths, women and males who have sex with other males. In fact, the infection rate for young Black Americans, ages 19 to 24, is 4.9 per 1,000 people – four times the overall HIV infection rate for young people in America, which is 1 per 1,000. (Click here to read more about the study.)
“The infection rate for non-Hispanic Blacks is 20 times greater than the remainder of the population, and this disparity begins early in life," said Martina Morris, lead author of the report this week on the higher incidence of HIV among young people. Morris directs the University of Washington's Center for the Studies in Demography and Ecology, and she led the team that studied d 13,000 young adults who agreed to be screened for HIV infection.
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But it doesn’t have to be that way, AIDs experts say. What will make a difference is if the entire community – both Black institutions and individuals – took the crisis more seriously and took ownership of the problem for their own sexual health, they say.
“[I am] becoming convinced the incidence could be reduced if people changed their sexual behaviors,” says Loretta Sweet Jemmott, Ph.D., a sexual health expert who has been teaching young people how to protect themselves from HIV for the past 15 years.
Part of the problem, she and other experts say, is complacency. People are all too familiar with the numbers, and they are unsure what to do about the problem. Many young people accept that HIV/AIDS as a simple fact of life in the 21st century. Meanwhile, despite better AIDS treatments now than ever before, Blacks continue to die more often from AIDS than other Americans.
"A generation of men is growing up having not seen their friends die of AIDS, and maybe they have the impression that HIV is not such a terrible infection," Thomas Frieden, New York City Health commissioner told reporters last month when he announced that the city has seen a 30-percent rise in new male-to-male HIV cases from 2001 through last year,. ”Unless they practice safer sex, we will face another wave of suffering and death from HIV and AIDS,” he said.
Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, says the rise in infection among Black man who have sex with other men is that they fail to recognize that AIDS is a Black disease.
“Black people, regardless of orientation, have not taken ownership of the disease,” he says. “Black gay men think of AIDS is a White gay disease. Black women think of it as a White gay disease. Where we have found success in fighting AIDS is in Uganda; in Botswana, the culture has said this is a problem for us.”
The “Ugandan miracle,” as it’s known, saw a dramatic drop in HIV incidence, beginning in the late-1990s after government policy changed and the people of this sub-Saharan African country united behind the fight against AIDS, which had ravaged the country.
With no vaccine in sight, more AIDS experts are saying that it will take just that kind of fight to end AIDS in America, particularly in Black communities.
“If Black folks are serious about ending the AIDS epidemic, and our survival is dependent on us being serious, we need to do two things: We need to stop pretending that it’s someone else’s problem. Second, we need to create a mass mobilization around HIV. Every Black institution should have some mechanism or plan to address the problem. Black churches, civil rights groups and anyone who is interested in Black people had better be talking about AIDS. If we don’t, we will fail and suffer the consequences.”
Black churches have finally begun to answer the call, as evidenced by the recent summit in New York, led by the Rev. Calvin Butts and Bishop T.D. Jakes. In addition to working with legislators to shape laws that would force the government to declare an American AIDS state of emergency, the church leaders, who were among 150 leaders from various Black institutions, vowed to do what they can at their individual institutions to raise AIDS awareness, provide support for HIV patients, and promote testing.
The Congressional Black Caucus also has issued an open letter, seeking a national plan to fight HIV/AIDS in the Black community. “We’re calling for a mass mobilization to end the AIDS epidemic in the African-American community, calling for the testing of 1 million Black Americans by the end of December 2008, and calling for a national AIDS plan for the United States,” said California Democrat Barbara Lee.
The effort was launched on Sept. 27 in conjunction with the Black AIDS Institute, the National Medical Association and other organizations, as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Heightened National Response” to HIV/AIDS in Black America.
But if you’re not part of a national plan, there’s still more individuals you can do to fight AIDS, starting with taking personal responsibility for your sexual health and getting tested if you are sexually active.
These meetings will provide the information and tools you need to discover how your congregation, organization, or agency can start to make a difference in HIV battle, summit sponsors say.
For more options, check “How To Stop AIDS.”
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