Updated Feb. 6, 2008 – Phill Wilson was 27-year-old when he decided to get tested for HIV infection. But he says that the diagnosis, while seen widely as a death sentence, actually saved his life.
“If diagnosed early, there is much better outcome from treatment. You’ll also prevent further infection,” says Wilson, 50, a tireless HIV-prevention advocate and founder of the Black AIDS Institute, a partner in BET’s AIDS awareness campaign.
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Those are just a couple of the reasons BET, the Institute and other organizations are taking the opportunity to urge African Americans to find out their HIV status. Another major reason, as Wilson puts it, is that "..AIDS in America is a Black disease.”
On Thursday, National Black HIV Awareness Day, the institute, the nation's only Black HIV/AIDS think tank, plans to issue a report called "The State of AIDS In Black America." The report is expected to confirm what Wilson says and outline new strategies to fight the disease that has wrecked havoc on Black communities nationwide.
The institute will also rannounce the recepients of its annual "Heroes In The Struggle" honorees, whose pictures and quotes are highlighted in BET.com's "HIV Fighters" feature.
Twenty-six years after AIDS was first diagnosed, African Americans, who are only roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up nearly half of the 1.2 million people living with AIDS and more half of the new AIDS cases among youth. African-American women represent nearly 70 percent of the new AIDS cases. (For more on where African Americans stand, see the Black AIDS Institute's comprehensive report: "We're The Ones We've Been Waitint For.")
“We can continue to be in denial, but we can’t escape it,” Wilson says. “If we confront it, we can stop it. If we don’t, we will continue to get sick, and we will continue to die.”
Getting tested, getting treatment and taking preventative and cautionary measures are the best ways right now of stopping HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, which is known to cause AIDS, experts say.
“Everyone should get tested, because we’re all at risk if we are sexually active or sharing drug needles,” Wilson says. “It is a responsible thing to do. For own peace of mind. Knowing your status is a good thing to do.”
Michael S. Saag, MD, director of the 1917 AIDS Outpatient Clinic and the Center for AIDS Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, echoes Wilson’s sentiment.
"It's critical to catch the disease early," says Saag, a board member of the HIV Medical Association "The more damage the virus does to their immune systems, the worse patients respond to treatment, and the more likely they are to die sooner than if they get treatment early."
Testing is easy and painless, done now with a swab of the mouth instead of having blood drawn, and fast. In many instances you can get results within 20 to 40 minutes. (See HIV Test 101).
Testing can also prevent further infections because the desire to practice safer sex usually kicks in once a person knows his or her status, medical experts and advocates say.
"HIV testing is one of the best prevention tools we have,” says Dr. Daniel R. Kuritzkes, HIV Medical Association chairman and associate professor of medicine at Harvard University. Research shows that most of those who know their status change their behavior to limit their risk of transmitting the virus to others."
To find out where to get tested, check here.