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The Irony of HIV/AIDS: Preventable Yet Spreading In Black America

March 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

( HIV/AIDS was quickly stereotyped as a “gay disease” 25 years ago because most of the victims were homosexuals. Today, African Americans, who account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, are 50 percent of HIV cases. Black teens (aged 13-19), who account for 16 percent of the population, are 69 percent of new HIV cases. Black women are 66 percent, while Latina women, at 16 percent, have the same HIV rate as White women.

Do these figures make HIV/AIDS a Black disease? Of course not. Stereotypes hurt more than people’s feelings. They breed myths and dangerous prejudice that spread the virus. Why has HIV/AIDS settled in our community? Why are we faced with an epidemic that we know we have to prevent?

The myths and stereotypes that surround HIV/AIDS have fed the virus. Perhaps the most harmful stereotype is the “gay disease” myth. Although transmission among Black men, for example, most often occurs through sex with men, only half as many Black men as Whites get HIV through sex with men. Both drug use and heterosexual contact are major modes of transmission among African American men, as well. The District of Columbia’s rate escalated artificially because of a unique congressional ban on needle exchange programs, which exchange dirty for clean needles. I was able to remove the prohibition only recently when a new Democratic majority took control of Congress. Although drug addiction accounts significantly for higher African American rates, HIV is largely spread through sexual contact.

AIDS has become a Black epidemic because we have allowed it to thrive in the shadows, with too little open discussion and leadership to conquer it. For this reason, I devoted last year to breaking through the silence with a series of four town meetings in D.C. entitled, “A Series of Frank Conversations by Us with Us: A Self Examination on the D.C. HIV/AIDS Epidemic“.

We began with our clergy, natural leaders whom many look to for guidance. Because HIV has unique effects by age and sex, three separate town meetings followed, devoted to the population groups most seriously effected ¯ a “For Men-Between-Men” town meeting, a “Sex in the City” town meeting for women and a “Holla Back” forum for teens.

These were no holds barred, but civil discussions, led by well-known popular figures, such as nationally syndicated radio personality, Russ Parr, who led the men’s town meeting. However, the audience, not the moderators, dominated the discussions and hit all the hot button issues – multiple partners, risky and unsafe sex, denial about sexually transmitted diseases, homophobia, superstition, the “down-low“, the need for stronger, trusting relationships, the decline of marriage and its effects on children – all came out the shadows at the four town meetings.

Most important, each meeting featured two important take-away messages: 1) Prevention by engaging in safe sex and knowing your partner, and: 2) Get tested, for every resident, in keeping with the District’s pioneer campaign for universal testing. Experts report that people who get tested most often seek treatment that can control the disease, and avoid spreading it. Congressional Black Caucus members have twice been tested in a D.C. health service van we brought to the Capitol grounds to set an example for African-Americans.

As yet AIDS cannot be cured, but it can be prevented. However, because 25 percent of Americans with the virus do not know they are infected, they are unwittingly spreading AIDS in our community. HIV has gone mainstream among African Americans and can no longer be marginalized.

HIV/AIDS is a human tragedy we can turn around. The virus that has taken hold in Black America can be prevented and sent packing. But it will take far more vigorous and visible leadership from African American public officials and other leaders and more candor, courage and care for one another by us all.

Written By Eleanor Holmes Norton

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