- Faith & Family
Infections decrease for Black women, rise for Black gay men
Thursday is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day when Blacks living in the U.S. and across the Diaspora are encouraged to get tested and seek treatment for HIV/AIDS. And while the infection rate and number of deaths for whites in the U.S. have steadily declined, for Blacks the situation is just the opposite. In short, HIV/AIDS continues to devastate the Black community, confirming the importance of getting tested regularly and seeking medical treatment should one discover that they are HIV-positive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control [CDC], Blacks currently make up 14 percent of the U.S. population but are 44 percent of new HIV infections and 57 percent of HIV-related deaths. By the end of 2008, an estimated 240,627 Blacks were reported dead from AIDS diagnoses.
But let’s take a look at things right here in Miami-Dade County where we currently rank first in the state and third in the nation  in the number of AIDS cases [31,180]. Males account for 73 percent of cumulative reported AIDS cases with Blacks making up the greatest percentage: 51 percent are among Blacks; 34 percent are among Hispanics; and 13 percent are among whites. So while we are an estimated 14 percent of the population, we represent over three times that amount in reported cases of AIDS.
Are young people ignoring the risks?
National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is an HIV testing and treatment community mobilization initiative with four specific focal points: education, testing, involvement and treatment. Vanessa Mills, executive director of the Liberty City-based Empower “U” Inc., says it’s vital for those who are sexually active and at high risk of contracting HIV to know their status. Young people, she adds, are particularly vulnerable.
“This national campaign is in its 13th year but the HIV/AIDS epidemic is now 30 years old,” she said. “Why aren’t the numbers going down for Blacks? It’s apathy, for one. HIV is such a preventable disease but you have young people who believe they are somehow immune. So they continue to have unsafe sex instead of simply using a condom. Add to that the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and you have people who are infected hiding in the closet and refusing to disclose their status to their partners. Blacks are still keeping their heads in the sand.
“What would I recommend? When you meet a new person, you have to openly discuss sex, ask questions and never assume that you can look at them or anyone else and be able to tell if they’re HIV-positive or not. If someone wants to date, make your first date be going together to a testing site — protect yourself.”
Why aren’t Blacks getting the message?
A closer look at recent data shows that Black men represent 73 percent of all new infections and 37 percent of all men who have sex with men. One estimate from the CDC indicates that if current trends continue, at some point in their lifetime, 1/16 Black and 1/32 Black women will become infected. Additionally, the age group that has the largest increase in infection represents youth between the ages of 13 and 29, especially men who have sex with men.
“With this data we know where the epidemic is and we know that what we should be doing is targeting prevention and making more available service to individuals in the Black community,” said Dr. Debra Fraser-Howze, senior vice president for external affairs at Oral Sure Technology and the founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. “It takes a village. We have overcome difficulties in our history many times before. We’ve got to focus culturally and specifically on those populations that at the greatest risk: Black men; Black men who have sex with men; Black women; and underage youth.”
Fraser-Howze agrees with Mills’ assertion that youth almost feel like they’re immune.
“Young people between 13 and 29 were born into this epidemic,” she said. “They grew up seeing the success we’ve had with treatment and diagnosis. Some of them wrongly believe that HIV isn’t so bad and that they should not be afraid. But I’ve been in this for over 20 years and I know there is no glory in having HIV.”
Two brothers use their status to help others
Duane Cramer, 50, is an award-winning photographer who lives in San Francisco living with HIV/AIDS. His father, a noted professor at Howard University, died from AIDS-related complications in 1986. Now Cramer is part of national awareness campaign, Merck’s I Design, in which he brings his compassion to help others that are infected.
“When I first found out I was HIV-positive, I had a lot of knowledge and education about the virus,” he said. “I had ample resources and the support of others. But there are far many today who don’t. The campaign has apps and resource pages that will help those that are HIV-positive more easily manage their lives. HIV today is a manageable chronic condition. But there are side effects with the medications. We can stop the spread of HIV — it takes common sense, always using a condom and never sharing needles. We can turn this thing around.”
Phill Wilson, founder and executive director, Black AIDS Institute, agrees.
“Having the tools is not enough — ending the AIDS epidemic is going to require a commitment on our part — all of us. That includes ending the stigma, marginalization and isolation that comes with those who are HIV-positive.”
Empower “U” Inc. will host a confidential rapid testing and counseling outreach event on Thursday, Feb. 7 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the agency office, 8309 NW 22nd Avenue. Call 786-318-2337 fro more information. For more about the annual awareness day, visit www.blackaidsday.org.
By D. Kevin McNeir