AIDS Grows Up as Black Victims Increase
- Created on April 24th, 2006
It seems we’re up in arms about everything these days – racism, poverty, abortion rights, health care, tax cuts, terrorism, affirmative action, child welfare. The list is nearly endless.
But where’s the furor over rising AIDS rates in the Black community? The statistics are frightening: According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 50 Black men, 1 in 160 Black women and 1 out of 3 young Black gay males are infected with HIV, numbers nearly on par with infection rates in South Africa. In 2003, Blacks, though only 12% of the American population accounted for 50% of the new AIDS cases. Black females between the ages 25 and 44 are more likely to die of AIDS than any other illness.
Infection rates among the elderly – rarely thought of as sexually active – are also growing. And in prison, where the majority of the population is minority, the rate of confirmed AIDS cases is eight times higher than in general society, with the number of confirmed AIDS cases increasing every year since 1995. An "HIV in Prisons and Jails" report from 1999 found that 2.3 percent of state prison inmates nationwide are HIV–positive.
For African–American men who have sex with men, the rate of new infections is more than five times higher than it is for white men, spiking up to 15%, compared to less than 3% for white men.
Hopeful strides have been made against the disease in the past two decades. "The good news is that the death rate from HIV/AIDS has declined and people are living longer and better quality lives," says Jack Killen, MD, associate director fro Research Ethics at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAID). "A cure may be a long way off, but a huge amount of progress has been made in developing treatments which control the disease."
That makes the fact that new HIV and AIDS cases have increased in the Black community even as infection rates are leveling off or falling around the nation all the more alarming.
"The general public, including African–Americans, still believes HIV is a virus that predominately impacts gay whit men," said Pamela Mullins, a board member of AIDS Volunteers in Northern Kentucky. "In the African–American community this is something that’s not talked about much at all. We have not approached the virus with the same openness that others have."
In addition, AIDS activists and health officials say, the increase is blamed on a complicated mix of issues, including racism, apathy, poverty, poor access to health care, ignorance and recklessness.
"There is a sad confluence of stigma, economic status and behavior driving these rates," says Cornelius Baker, head of Washington, D.C.’s Whitman–Walker Clinic.
Historically, Blacks put little faith in mainstream health care. The Tuskegee experiment that exposed Black men to syphilis, then left them untreated still haunts our community. As a result, we go to the hospital later and are usually sicker than our white counterparts when we get there. Even in today, many Blacks believe AIDS is a man–made virus meant to target communities of color. The mistrust of government agencies and unfriendly medical agencies keeps many away from treatment centers.
Blacks are also plagued by other health disparities. For instance, 75% of all uninsured individuals in the country are minorities and are significantly less likely to receive thorough physical examinations, as well as less likely to receive the latest treatments. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, studies show most Blacks don’t learn they have HIV until they are much sicker than their white counterparts. By then, they are less likely to respond to the antiretroviral medicines and other drug combinations that control AIDS.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Twenty–one years into the epidemic, AIDS has changed from a disease largely associated with gay white men to a plague of inner–city Blacks and the poor. Many HIV activists say the road to changing this lies in the arms of community institutions, especially the Black church. To make these changes, however, means breaking the silence surrounding sexuality in the Black culture, says Phil Wilson, executive of the Los Angeles–based Black AIDS Institute.
"We have to talk about living on the down low – men who have sex with other men and don’t use condoms with their wives or girlfriends for fear of being outed for homosexuality, infidelity – and the lack of structure some modern Black families," Wilson says.
According to several national studies, the African–American community is nearly ready to make that break. In those studies, more Blacks said they wanted information about HIV / AIDS than whites. "The Black community’s growing concern suggests Blacks personally know someone who is infected, and people are beginning to sense the urgency," says Jennifer Kates, senior program officer of HIV / AIDS Policy at Kaiser. "The collective voices of organizations such as The Balm in Gilead (the New York–based nonprofit organization founded to help stop the spread of HIV /AIDS through education programs designed with faith communities), the National Minority AIDS Council and of Black legislators, are seeping through.
In 2001 the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA unveiled a program to help Black churches spread the message of AIDS prevention. Three years ago, the Progressive National Baptist Convention called on its member churches to declare a state of emergency about the AIDS epidemic. But more needs to be done, including efforts by the media, particularly the Black media.
"The more voices, the more a community is educated," says Wilson. "Anybody from the fabric of Black America who can go out and tell the truth about the spread and prevention of HIV should do so."
- World AIDS Day