Blacks and AIDS: 30 years later

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(NNPA)—Sunday will mark the 30th anniversary of the first public identification of AIDS. On June 5, 1981, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report disclosed that five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles were diagnosed with an infectious disease normally associated with a deteriorated immune system.

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Writing about the initial discovery, last week in the Washington Post, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, recalled: “One month later, the MMWR wrote about 26 cases in previously healthy gay men from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, who had developed PCP [pneumocystis carinii pneumonia] as well as an unusual form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma.

“Their immune systems were severely compromised. This mysterious syndrome was acting like an infectious disease that was probably sexually transmitted. My colleagues and I never had seen anything like it. The idea that we could be dealing with a brand-new infectious microbe seemed like something for science fiction movies.

“Little did we know what lay ahead.

“Soon, cases appeared in many groups: injection-drug users, hemophiliacs and other recipients of blood and blood products, heterosexual men and women, children born to infected mothers. The era of AIDS had begun.”

Actually, AIDS began prior to 1981—we just didn’t know it.

Since 1981, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people in the United States have been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Among the 1.7 million, 600,000 died. More than 1.1 million are living with the disease today. Every 9 ? minutes, someone is infected with HIV in the United States.

AIDS, initially thought to be the exclusive purview of White gay men, has taken such a large toll on African-Americans that Phill Wilson, of the Black AIDS Institute, describes it as a Black disease. Although Blacks represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans account for 45 percent of all HIV infections and 46 percent of all people living with HIV in 2006, according to the CDC.

Over the course of the epidemic, African-Americans have become a larger proportion of those diagnosed with AIDS, jumping from 25 percent in 1985 to almost double—48 percent—in 2009.

Among certain groups, the numbers are staggering:

•Black women account for 61 percent of all new HIV infections among women, a rate nearly 15 times larger than that of White women. Most African-American women were infected through heterosexual activity.

•Black teenagers represent only 17 percent of all U.S. teenagers, but 68 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses among teens.

•According to one five-city sampling, 46 percent of Black gay and bisexual men were infected with HIV, compared to 31 percent of Whites and 17 percent of Latino males.

There are many reasons for such disparities, including limited access to quality health. One national study found that Blacks are more likely to skip medical care because they lacked transportation, were too sick to go to the doctor, or had competing needs, such as expenses for basic essentials.

Citing a national study, an HIV/AIDS fact sheet published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation observed: “Blacks with HIV/AIDS were more likely to be publicly insured or uninsured than their white counterparts, with over half (59 percent) relying on Medicaid compared to 32 percent of Whites. One fifth of Blacks with HIV/AIDS (22 percent) were uninsured, compared to 17 percent of Whites. Blacks were much less likely to be privately insured than Whites (14 percent compared to 44 percent).”

In addition to less access of health care, the death rate is higher among Blacks, in part, because African-Americans are often diagnosed long after they have been infected, reducing the likelihood of successful treatment.

Grassroots community groups have been laboring to heighten awareness. Wilson and his Black AIDS Institute have been particularly impressive mobilizing civil rights leaders, even getting them to undergo testing in public. Similarly, Pernessa C. Seele, of the Balm in Gilead, has mobilized the faith community, both here and in Africa, and C. Virginia Fields has placed a lot of focus on heterosexual women through her leadership of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

Still, too many people are walking around unaware of their HIV status, posing a threat to themselves and others. That’s why testing needs to be expanded at all levels. In addition, the Blacks AIDS Institute’s 2011 State of AIDS in Black America report outlines a number of steps that need to be taken by health officials to more effectively address the problem:

•Provide people with continuous and coordinated quality care once they learn they have been infected by HIV;

•Increase the number and diversity of clinical care and related services to people living with HIV;

•Support people living with HIV who have other needs, such as affordable housing;

•Narrow HIV-related disparities;

•Reduce the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV; and

•Adopt community-level approaches to reduce HIV infections in high-risk communities.

The 30th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS is no time for celebration. It is a time to expand our efforts to bring an end to this preventable disease.

(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)

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