AIDS Institute focuses on innovative approaches to HIV testing

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(Part one of a two-part series.)

(NNPA)—“One size does not fit all,” says Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute. While organizations across the country will commemorate National HIV Testing Day on June 27, the Black AIDS Institute, the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on Black people, is urging that efforts don’t stop there.

“Annual awareness days are very important, but everyday is HIV testing day at the Black AIDS Institute. A single strategy or silver bullet is not going to end the AIDS epidemic in our communities,” says Wilson.

Black America is 12 percent of the U.S. population but makes up half of all new HIV infections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20 percent of those infected don’t know they have the disease. According to the Institute, the number of Black people who don’t know their HIV status is much higher.

“We start with the data,” says Charlie Baran, director of programs at the Institute. The Institute publishes an annual report on the “State of AIDS In Black America” that provides an overview of the latest epidemiological data and an analysis of current HIV/AIDS issues and breaking news in Black communities.

The Institute also publishes special HIV/AIDS reports on Black women, Black youths and HIV testing. Later this year the organization will publish a report following the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, on the State of AIDS Treatment in Black America.

“Our reports help Black communities understand the magnitude of the HIV epidemic in the community, and help Black policy-makers and advocates develop culturally appropriate strategies to address the epidemic from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view,” says Baran.

Getting people tested can be a matter of life or death. “It’s related to poor health outcomes because people are diagnosed late in their disease progression,” says Greg Millett, senior policy advisor in the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy and an epidemiologist with the CDC. Studies have found that people who do not know they’re infected are more likely to transmit HIV infection than those who do know their status, Millett adds.

The Black AIDS Institute is responding to the call by recognizing that the Black community represents a myriad of ages, lifestyles and interests, and requires just as many strategies to get the message of HIV testing across. “We’re creating HIV testing messages that resonate with us wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing,” Wilson says.

Take the above-40 crowd. More than a third of new HIV infections in the U.S. occur in people over 40 years old. Yet there have been very few campaigns targeting this population. The Institute is working to change that with an innovative program.

To help Black folks over 40 become more aware of the HIV/AIDS risk among them. The campaign, supported by local organizations, is called Trump AIDS.  It leverages the traditional Black pastime of bid whist, a popular card game among Black Americans aged 40-plus, as a unique way to convene, educate, and get this often overlooked HIV/AIDS demographic tested for HIV.

In cities across the country, players will participate in a bid whist tournament and health fair, and test their skills for prizes and a chance to compete in a national tournament. “We start by focusing on our community assets,” says Scott Hamilton, the Trump AIDS coordinator. “Black people love to play bid whist. This is an example of how we use what already exists in the community to address important issues. This is often the first time many of the players are getting a true understanding of the degree HIV affects their age group.”

While the college crowd may not be playing bid whist, they’re hearing the message about HIV and AIDS awareness through Institute programs that target campus life. Working with the Institute’s LIFE AIDS program, sororities, fraternities and educational clubs pledge to do at least one HIV/AIDS-related program in the fall or spring semester. “Maybe if you’re part of a Greek organization, you might want to have a step show competition and raise money for awareness and share facts and statistics throughout the program,” says Lenee Richards, a mobilization coordinator at the Institute. “We have Black college students working with other Black college students to determine what works well on their campus in regards to HIV/AIDS outreach.”

The LIFE AIDS program helps college students develop college based HIV testing programs at its annual Black student Teach-In. “I like the Teach In,” says James Norris, a senior at DePauw University in Indiana, “because it brings us together to share our experiences while making sure we understand the theories behind HIV prevention and the importance of evaluation.”

The Black Gay Men’s Network, another one of the Institute’s signature programs, is a community of successful Black gay men seeking to transform society, improve their health outcomes and promote social change. “We’re reaching out to men who are not already in the ‘HIV Choir,” says Chris Bland, mobilization manager for the Black AIDS Institute. “The goal of the BGM Network is to help professional Black gay men who are influential in their communities and social circles use their influence to raise awareness about HIV testing and work toward ending the AIDS epidemic.”

Partnerships are key

The Test 1 Million movement is yet another way the Institute is reaching out to a diverse community. In partnership with the Screen Actor’s Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and leading Black organizations and institutions, Test 1 Million is a national HIV testing mobilization effort designed to normalize HIV testing in Black communities.  “We have over 100 partners around the country,” says Natasha Moise, mobilization coordinator. “I like to say it’s a movement. People want to be a part something.  Sometimes HIV can be overwhelming, but everybody can get tested  It’s a way for people to say, ‘I can really make a difference.’”

Organizations that have partnered with the Black AIDS Institute agree.

“The Test 1 Million campaign unifies the Black community around HIV,” says Mamie Harris, founder of IV Charis, a Cincinnati- and Northern Kentucky-based AIDS-service organization and Test 1 million partner.  Thirteen thousand people were tested in Ohio through Test 1 Million efforts,” Harris says. The Institute brought in celebrities like Lamman Rucker of “Meet the Browns” and “Why Did I Get Married Too” stars Sheryl Lee Ralph, Rockmond Dunbar, and Danny Glover, who visited local communities encouraging people to get tested for HIV.

s Tina Hoff, vice president and director of Entertainment Media Partnerships for the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Community coming together to end HIV/AIDS, and that begins by getting tested and knowing your status.”

“I know we are going to end the AIDS epidemic in our communities,” says Wilson.  “We don’t have a choice.  And we are going to do it by developing innovative programs that use indigenous Black culture.  There are around nearly 40 million Black people in this country.  We are determined to reach every one of them with messages that speak directly to them.  Our motto is ‘Our people, Our problem, Our solutions.’ I think that says it all.”

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