Official says ‘Down Low’ men not responsible for high HIV rates among Black women

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ATLANTA (NNPA)—Despite all the talk about “Down Low” Black men—who have sex with women while secretly having intercourse with other men—the major cause of the extremely high HIV/AIDS rates among African-American women is being fueled by heterosexual Black men with multiple sex partners, a top federal official says.

In an interview with the NNPA News Service, Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said the CDC has studied why Black women make up 61 percent of all new HIV cases among women, with 80 percent contracting the disease through heterosexual contact.

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DR. KEVIN FENTON

“We know that a lot of the infections are actually coming from male partners who have high-risk behavior,” Fenton said in an interview in his Atlanta office. “In fact, we have looked to see what proportion of infections is coming from male partners who are bisexual and found there are actually relatively few. More are male partners who are having female partners and are injecting drugs or using drugs or have some other risks that may put those female partners at risk of acquiring HIV.”

At 61 percent, Black women have an infection rate nearly 15 times higher than White women. Latinas represent 17 percent of all new HIV cases among women. White women are only 15 percent. AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Although African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, Blacks represent nearly 50 percent of all people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Black share of AIDS cases has jumped from 25 percent in 1985 to 49 percent in 2007. There are about 1.1 people in the United States living with HIV, more than 500,000 of them Black.

“What we are seeing is a concentration of the epidemic among the poor, among ethnic minorities and racial minorities in the United States,” Fenton explained. “We’re seeing populations which have been historically and traditionally hard to reach and more difficult to serve.” He said the epidemic is rising faster in rural areas and certain regions of the nation, particularly in the southeast.

What is needed most, he said, are new strategies targeted to the new groups instead of old ones developed when HIV was considered largely a White, gay man’s disease.

Even among gay men, African-Americans bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“At the beginning, we had largely White gay men who were infected,” Fenton said. “Today, we’re seeing an increasing number of minority gay and bisexual men who are infected by this disease. Among gay and bisexual men, new infections among Black and Hispanic men now outnumber new infections among White gay men.”

In addition to heterosexual African-American women and gay Black men, the spread of HIV/AIDS among African-American teens is also a major concern, Fenton said. Black teenagers represent only 13 percent of those aged 13-19 in the United States, but 69 percent of all new AIDS cases among teenagers.

In addition to feeling invincible as youth, Fenton said, Black teens have higher rates of sexually-transmitted diseases than White teens and engage in sex with others in an older age group and both factors place them at greater risk of being HIV infected.

In seeking to explain why African-Americans have such high infection rates, Fenton said disparities show up in most health areas and that HIV/AIDS should be viewed in that larger context. There are also other factors that account for the high numbers.

“If there is a high prevalence of HIV in a given community and you have sexual partners from that community, your probability of coming into contact with HIV is much higher than others,” Fenton said.

HIV is a preventable disease. The crisis has spread quickly in the U.S. for a number of reasons, including a lack of knowledge, limited access to health care, and the failure to use condoms or limit the number of sex partners.

In one report, the FDA said, “The surest way to avoid [STDs] is not to have sex altogether (abstinence). Another is to limit sex to one partner who also limits his or her sex in the same way (monogamy). Condoms are not 100 percent safe, but if used properly, will reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Protecting yourself against the AIDS virus is of special concern because this disease is fatal and has no cure.”

To halt the spread of HIV, the CDC is working to increase HIV literacy, expanding testing, creating more partnerships with grass roots organizations and the Black media, enlisting the help of Black leaders as well as rethinking its whole approach to tackling the epidemic.

As part of its effort to be more effective, the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC announced in May a five-year Act Against AIDS partnership with 14 national Black organizations, including the NNPA. As part of the partnership, CDC provided direct grants to the organizations to hire an AIDS coordinator and support other efforts to better educate the public about HIV/AIDS.

Fenton said everyone has a role to pay.

“Everyone and every action counts,” he said. “And if we are going to be truly successful in bringing this epidemic to an end, we’re going to have to enlist the hearts and minds of the nation, of communities and of individuals across the country in bringing this disease to an end.”

Fenton added, “All of us have a role to play in ending this epidemic, whether in reducing risk behavior, talking about HIV to family and friends and those who we love, getting HIV tested, knowing our HIV status and encouraging others to know their status, mobilizing our political leaders and our faith leaders around this epidemic and tackling stigma and discrimination and the silence which continues to kill so many members of our community every day.”

(To view excerpts from George Curry’s interview with Dr. Kevin Fenton and other AIDS activists, visit http://www.youtube.com/blackaidsmedia. This series is made available as part of NNPA’s support of Act Against AIDS and the Black AIDS Media Partnership’s Greater Than AIDS campaign.)

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