Black people have been disproportionately impacted by HIV since the epidemic began in the 1980s, accounting for over 40 percent of new diagnoses today.

By Alexa Spencer,
Word in Black

It’s been nearly 20 years since the United States observed its first National HIV Testing Day on June 27, 1995. But because Black people are still contracting the virus at higher rates than other groups, advocates say, folks still need to get tested. 

“The thing that we know about HIV is that the earlier you know your HIV status, the longer you can live. That is a fact,” said Rae Lewis-Thornton, an activist who’s been advocating for HIV prevention and care for over four decades.

Lewis-Thornton said that even today, decades after the virus was first discovered in the 1980s, “Testing is even more incredibly important because you can’t get treatment if you don’t know your HIV status.” 

About 560,000 people in the U.S. found out they contracted the virus in the 1980s when the epidemic started. Black people were among those most affected. 

Sadly, not much has changed. 

Today, Black people account for just over 40 percent of all new HIV diagnoses. Over 290,000 of us have progressed to stage three HIV, developed AIDS, and died since the 1980s, according to 2016 statistics. 

Lewis-Thornton, who found out she was living with HIV after donating blood in 1987, said that technology has become so advanced and by using it, “We really can save someone’s life.” 

“We’re squandering this technology. It took them almost five years to develop an HIV antibody test. We’ve come a long way from 1985 when testing became available,” Lewis-Thornton said. ”Then, it wasn’t even available for general testing. It was available for blood supply and so the point is that we needed this technology. We have it and now we need to put it to use.” 

Dr. Sherry Molock, an associate professor at George Washington University who examines the development of HIV prevention programs in African-American faith-based communities, agreed that HIV research has advanced. 

“With the advent of new medications like PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), HIV is now a manageable disease but it’s still important that people get tested regularly and engage in safe sex behaviors,” Molock said in an email to Word In Black. 

Molock, who also researches HIV risk in sexual minority men (SMM), or gay and bisexual men, says while rates of infection are decreasing among this group, “HIV is still disproportionately impacting Black youth. Black SMM is less than 1 percent of  the U.S. population but represents 26 percent of new HIV cases.”

It’s no secret that Black women are also disproportionately impacted by the virus. Despite making up less than 15 percent of the U.S. female population, Black cisgender women account for nearly 60 percent of new diagnoses. 

And Black trans women account for 46 percent of new diagnoses among transgender women. 

Molock believes it’s important for Black folks to get tested, and if they’re HIV-positive, to get treated, but she also recognizes the individual and structural barriers to doing both. 

“Stigma, fear of disclosure of sexual identity, concerns around violation of confidentiality, costs of tests, and location of services” are just a few of the reasons why some people find it harder to access healthcare. 

“Folks may not realize that HIV risks are higher in both Black heterosexual and LGBTQ youth and that homonegativity beliefs and policies increase risk,” Molock said. “Changes have to be made not only at the individual level but at community and structural levels as well.”

According to a poll conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation in 2014, a portion of Black folks have made it a priority to know their status. 

The data shows that 76 percent of Black people over age 18 reported that they’d been tested for HIV, compared to 58 percent of Latinos and 50 percent of White people. 

Still, Lewis-Thornton says testing for the Black community is a must. 

“We still have more HIV cases. Whether you’re gay or straight, that doesn’t matter. Male or female. We’re not cared for right away. And we’re not virally suppressed,” she said. “And if you’re not virally suppressed — which is really the real piece — when you’re not virally suppressed, you’re still at risk for HIV-related health issues and you can infect somebody else.”

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