On this National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Feb. 7, we are reminded of the devastating toll HIV continues to take among African Americans, affecting nearly every corner of Black communities. Today, as we reflect on the lives touched by and lost to this disease, let us also renew our resolve to do whatever it takes to end this epidemic.
Of all races, African Americans have the highest rates of HIV infection in the nation. Blacks make up just 14 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for almost half of those living and dying with HIV and AIDS in this country.
Within the Black community, the face of HIV is young and old, male and female, straight and gay. It is Black women in their 30s and 40s for whom AIDS is now the third leading cause of death. It is the Black youth of our country, many of whom will become infected before their 30th birthday. It is Black gay and bisexual men, who continue to be especially hard hit by HIV, accounting for more than 40 percent of new infections among African Americans overall.
To reduce this toll, we must come together to confront the complex environmental factors that fuel the epidemic in African-American communities:
The high prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in Black communities, coupled with most African Americans selecting partners who are also African-American, means they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each sexual encounter than people of other races/ethnicities.
We know that if you don’t have the means to see a doctor, you may not get an HIV test or treatment until it’s too late. According to the most recent national Census data, about one in five Blacks are without health insurance.
We know that those who cannot afford the basics in life may end up in circumstances that increase their HIV risk. We also know that nearly a quarter of African-American families live in poverty and that the current economic crisis has led to record-high levels of unemployment among African Americans.
Higher rates of incarceration among African-American men decrease the number of available partners for females and may impact sexual risk behavior. This can, in turn, fuel the spread of HIV.
Stigma and homophobia – far too prevalent in every community – continue to keep many African Americans from seeking HIV testing, prevention and treatment.
While these realities paint a dire picture, there is another image that has been unfolding – one of hope.
This past year has ushered in a season of new hope in the fight against HIV. We’ve seen new HIV prevention breakthroughs, like evidence that taking a daily pill can reduce risk of infection for gay and bisexual men, and applying a vaginal gel before and after sex can reduce risk of infection for women. In July 2010, President Obama launched the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which provides a first-ever blueprint for fighting the U.S. epidemic, with a particular focus on populations hardest hit, including African-Americans.
The number of new infections among African Americans is stable and has been for more than a decade – despite the growing number of people living with HIV who can potentially transmit the disease. We’ve also seen dramatic declines in new infections in several categories where African Americans are disproportionately represented, such as mother-to-child transmission and injection drug use. All of these developments show us that prevention works.
And Black communities are more mobilized than ever against HIV. This weekend, African American leaders from every walk of life – business, civil rights, entertainment, government and media – are speaking out and taking action at events across the nation, from health fairs and workshops to candlelight vigils and HIV testing events.
At CDC, HIV prevention in Black communities remains one of our top priorities. Last year, we invested more than half of our HIV prevention budget to fight HIV among African Americans. We recently expanded a multi-million dollar testing initiative to reach more African Americans with HIV testing. We are increasing the number and reach of HIV prevention programs for African Americans and are working across federal agencies to tackle the complex social factors driving the Black HIV epidemic. In cities hardest-hit by HIV across the nation, we are also working to scale up HIV prevention services to significantly decrease new HIV infections. And through CDC’s Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative, we are harnessing the collective strength and reach of longstanding Black community institutions to increase HIV-related awareness, knowledge, and action across the nation.
Each of us, too, has a part to play in this fight. The fact remains that HIV infection is completely preventable. We each have a personal responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Get the facts about HIV. Get tested. Speak out against homophobia and stigma. Everyone and every action counts. Visit www.actagainstaids.org to find out more.
Turning the tide on HIV in Black communities will take hard work. But with new tools, new hope and renewed commitment, we can change the course of this epidemic.
Dr. Fenton is the director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.