Today is World AIDS Day and the annual designation offers the Black community an opportunity to focus attention on the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on our families. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), statistics show that one in 22 African Americans might become HIV positive in their lifetime. Blacks are twice as likely as Hispanics and eight times as likely as whites are of being diagnosed with AIDS. These statistics are more sobering when considered against the backdrop of the explosion of new infections among Black men. The CDC indicates Black men account for two-thirds of all new cases of HIV among Blacks and the rate of new infections for Black men is six times that of white men. While homophobia is still a powerful force hampering HIV prevention in the Black community, Black men who had sex with other men represent about 63 percent of new infections among all Black men.
Blacks are in a state of denial over the damage HIV/AIDS is inflicting upon their community. The CDC reports that from 2005 to 2008, the rate of HIV diagnoses among Blacks increased from 68 per 100,000 to 74 per 100,000. It is the largest increase in rates of HIV diagnoses by race or ethnicity. Sadly, by the end of 2007 an estimated 233,624 Blacks with AIDS in the United States and five territories had died. HIV is the ninth leading cause of death for all Blacks and the third leading cause for Black men and women aged 35-44.
World AIDS Day is a cause for the Blacks in the United States to pause and assess the considerable impact this preventable disease has had on the community. While other groups have had success in stemming the disease, conditions have worsened among Blacks. Sadly, it is largely a self-inflicted wound as the statistics are being driven by ill-advised behaviors, misinformation, and ignorance. Given all that is now known about HIV/AIDS, we are witnessing a human tragedy unfold as Blacks are seemingly oblivious to well founded facts regarding the risk of infection if engaged in certain behaviors.
A number of factors are fueling the HIV/AIDS crisis among Blacks. Factors related to poverty are driving the high rates of infection as is the higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases among Blacks than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation. The latter is also the result of risky behavior, such as unprotected sex and multiple sexual partners. The use of intravenous drugs and the sharing of dirty needles by drug abusers also contribute to the higher rates of infection among Blacks. Making matters worse is the stigma and shame associated with HIV/AIDS and the tendency of many Blacks to attach some moral significance to those who suffer from the disease. At the heart of the value judgments made by many Blacks about individuals with HIV/AIDS is a deeply rooted homophobia in the Black community, often driven by messages conveyed from church pulpits by Black pastors. The Black faith community has been slow to offer an objective response to the HIV/AIDS crisis but in recent years, many more congregations are beginning to take the lead in prevention efforts, with some churches offering testing during Sunday worship services.
While much attention has been paid to the AIDS crisis in Africa, and in particular South Africa, the domestic crisis within the Black community in the United States is equally daunting. There is an obvious need for increased investments in HIV/AIDS research but at the same time, prevention must move to the forefront of efforts among Blacks. Passive resistance will only exacerbate the statistics. The conversation about HIV/AIDS will have to come out of the shadows if Black Americans are to have any chance at reversing the trend of high infections and death. Education is critical to debunk myths and preconceived notions about HIV/AIDS as well as confronting biases that are forcing many victims to go underground and conceal their health status. The preventive measures that can be effective at reducing the incidence of HIV – condom use, openness regarding sexuality, reduction of sexual partners – will have to take precedence to prevent a wide scale health care calamity from decimating the Black community this century.