Voices: Reflecting on Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day 2011

Monday, February 7, was National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  Below are two writers on the continuing conditions perpetuating HIV infection in Black communities and how to combat them.–AJP

Black AIDS Institute’s chief executive and president, Phill Wilson, wasn’t exaggerating when he said that “AIDS is the fire that is ravaging the black community.”

So what exactly is fueling the flames?

There is no one answer. It’s a combination of many factors: Poverty and economic instability. Institutionalized racism. Lack of quality health care, poor access to health care in general and mistrust in the medical system. Gender inequality and domestic violence. Homophobia. Intravenous drug use and the lack of needle-exchange programs. Poor health literacy. High rates of incarceration. Untreated sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and gonorrhea, which make people more vulnerable to contracting HIV. And people having unprotected sex while unaware that they are positive, and who thus go untreated while they’re highly infectious.

The slow response by the federal government has played a role as well, as has a lack of funding. Thirty years into the epidemic, and it was only just last year that the U.S. government finally released a national HIV/AIDS strategy.

But most importantly, the black community’s own slow response to the epidemic has had a profound impact. Minus a few exceptions, most black media publications, churches and community leaders set the tone early by turning a blind eye to HIV, believing that this epidemic was not their problem and that HIV was a moral issue as opposed to a public health crisis. In the end, we have all paid a price for their unwillingness to address the disease early on.

Don’t get me wrong: Over the years, we have seen some progress in having public conversations about HIV, and the importance of getting tested and practicing safer sex. But we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, too many current conversations about HIV — especially in the black media — are either met with resistance, treaded lightly or saturated with inaccuracies (think: everything about the down low).

~~Kellee Terrell, “HIV/AIDS in Black America: The Uphill Battle

In the late 1990s, right about when taxpayer-developed lifesaving drugs hit the market and America declared victory over HIV, the epidemic split: Black diagnoses continued climbing as a share of overall diagnoses, while white diagnoses plummeted. In other words, in the part of America where people had access to care, the epidemic changed dramatically; elsewhere, it didn’t.

There are many, complex factors driving the black AIDS epidemic, from the much discussed stigma to the much less discussed basic access to meaningful health care. We’ll be parsing these throughout the year. But in the end, as the graph above suggests, today’s epidemic is also shaped dramatically by one factor: whether our government takes it seriously enough to end it, in all parts of our society.

~~Kai Wright, “One Question on Black AIDS Day: Do We Care Enough to End It?”

Image credit: CBS Minnesota