On Feb. 7, the country observed National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness & Information Day ( NBHAAD ) . The day marked a huge mobilization effort by celebrities, advocates, healthcare professionals, and others to make sure that African Americans across the nation are educated, tested, and involved. In a statement to promote NBHAAD, Deborah Fraser Howze, executive director of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, said that ' [ w ] e want Blacks throughout America to know all of the facts about this disease as it continues to destroy our communities.'
Such an endeavor is indeed daunting. One reason is because it seems that HIV/AIDS education involves a race against time. According to a study of 32 states that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) released on World AIDS Day 2004 ( Dec. 1 ) , 51 percent of all HIV diagnoses were among Blacks, who make up only 13 percent of the population. Black men accounted for the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses, with 103.5 per 100,000 individuals—a rate that is seven times that of white men and three times the rate among Latinos.
If so many are being infected so quickly, it would seem that teaching the facts would be a top priority.
However, it is one thing to teach the facts; it is another to actually absorb what one reads or hears and allow that information to override other notions. According to a joint study released by Rand Corporation and Oregon State University and reported by the Washington Post, some African Americans believe that government scientists created AIDS to control or eradicate communities. Almost half of the 500 Blacks surveyed said that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is man-made. More than one quarter said they believed that AIDS was created in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed it was made and spread by the CIA.
The authors of the study, which appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, said that this belief could hurt efforts to stop the spread of the disease among Blacks.
The Time Is Now!
On Feb. 1, the Black AIDS Institute released a report entitled 'The Time is Now!' The 80-page document ( which can be downloaded at www.blackaids.org ) examines the factors that have led to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black communities but also analyzes the country's response to it. The report meshes statistics, photographs, and personal accounts—such as gay pastor Kwabena Rainey Cheeks's two-decade battle against HIV—in order to demystify the disease and even provide optimism.
The overview presents devastating numbers concerning HIV/AIDS and the Black demographic. Regarding impact, the report states that, among other things, Blacks account for two-thirds of new AIDS cases among teens even though they make up 15 percent of the country's teen population. Moreover, the report claims that studies have shown that as many as a third of Black gay and bisexual men under the age of 30 may be HIV-positive.
'The Time is Now!' also presents numbers that reflect the country's declining interest as well as gaps in healthcare. For example, the report points to decreasing funds for the primary federal AIDS program as well as for public insurance programs, which Blacks depend on more than other ethnic groups.
However, the report not only presents problems but solutions as well. Among some of the answers proposed are long-term funds for treatment programs; comprehensive sex education; and rejection of blame within the Black community. As Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, said in a statement, ' [ f ] or Black America, the moment of truth has arrived. If we're going to survive this epidemic, we are going to have to gather all of our resources and marshal them for the struggles that lay ahead.'
State and Local Numbers
Regionally and locally, the results also show that a disproportionate number of African Americans suffer from HIV/AIDS. According to the December 2004 Illinois HIV/AIDS/STD Monthly Surveillance Update, of the 11,553 Illinois males who were living with AIDS at the end of last year, Black men made up 48 percent of the group. African-American women comprised an even higher share of females, at 67 percent. ( Even more alarming, non-Hispanic Blacks made up 70 percent of the pediatric AIDS cases. ) In addition, 43 percent of the Black males were men who have sex with men ( MSM ) —although this figure is significantly lower than in the white ( 76 percent ) and Latino ( 55 percent ) populations. In all, Blacks made up 52 percent of living AIDS cases and 49 percent of the cumulative cases that have been reported since Jan. 1, 1981.
Unfortunately, regarding HIV diagnoses, the figures ( reported since July 1, 1999 ) are quite similar. Forty-seven percent of male HIV-positive Illinoisans were Black while African-American women made up 68 percent of the state HIV-positive female demographic. ( Again, Black infants exceed adults and teens, accounting for a whopping 72 percent of living pediatric HIV cases. )
In sum, 53 percent of the living and cumulative HIV cases were Black.
According to a 2004 Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) HIV/AIDS/STD report of 1985-2002 AIDS incidence rates, non-Hispanic Blacks in the city accounted for three times as many cases compared to non-Hispanic whites. ( African Americans were 58.7 percent of cases; Latinos comprised 19.2 percent. ) In terms of HIV ( not AIDS ) diagnoses documented over 1999-2003, Blacks represented 55 percent of cases. Again, though, a lower percentage of MSM accounted for the numbers ( 44 percent ) than in the white ( 83 percent ) and Hispanic ( 66 percent ) communities.
Thankfully, there are scores of local and regional advocates and organizations to help with all aspects of AIDS. For example, on the state level, Rep. Constance A. 'Connie' Howard, D-34th District, has promised to push forward with legislation to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. She has stated that one goal is to stop the spread of HIV in Illinois prisons, where condoms are banned as contraband and free HIV testing is unavailable.
Also, advocates have long recognized the need for getting the ( right ) word out as well—sometimes in ways that are increasingly innovative. Lora Branch told Windy City Times shortly after being named CDPH's new STD/HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Program Director that ' [ p ] art of the communication strategy involves the ability to do social marketing campaigns.' Branch wore several hats when she worked on Kevin's Room and Kevin's Room 2, films about Black gay and bisexual men that doubled as marketing programs about HIV prevention and testing.
However, help will be needed on all fronts in the war against the epidemic. When it comes to getting the message out to African Americans about HIV and AIDS, the Black AIDS Institute has it right: the time is definitely now.