Tuesday Feb 7th marked the 12th annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Its aim: To highlight the troubling statistic that African-Americans, just 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, and that a recommitment to existing efforts and new initiatives is essential to combating this pandemic plaguing African-American communities.

There are many factors that contribute to higher rates of HIV infections among African-Americans, and poverty is certainly a complex and pervasive one. African-Americans make up 27.4 percent of the poor, which typically translates to limited access to healthcare and education, as well as exposure to environments with higher crime rates and drug abuse.

The harsh reality is that those who cannot afford the basics, e.g., food, and shelter, in life may end up in circumstances that increase their HIV risk, said Dr. Donna Hubbard McCree at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Awareness Day focuses on, rather than the causes, are ways to treat and mitigate the spread of HIV/AIDS in African-American communities. Among the key initiatives put forward are destigmatizing the condition, expanding education about HIV/AIDS, and increasing access to healthcare.

Destigmatization

A major obstacle in identifying and treating HIV/AIDS is a reluctance on the part of at-risk individuals to get tested or seek out information about preventative measures or treatments. This is in large part due to homophobic attitudes toward HIV/AIDS and its associations with intravenous drug use.

Black people should be more open, said Pastor Hiawatha Calhoun of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in an interview with the Bakersfield Californian. People are not talking to each other about this, but it can be done.

Calhoun suggested that African-American religious leaders need to work toward reducing homophobic and criminal associations with HIV/AIDS in their communities by offering messages of love, support and compassion without judgment.

Instead of singling out certain members of our community and blaming them, he said. Black religious leaders need to resume their historical role of mobilizing African-Americans to address HIV as an issue that impacts the entire community.

The same goes for non-faith-based community organizations.

Education

Once people feel comfortable with discussing HIV/AIDS, the next step is educating them about how to prevent or treat it. Many simple precautions can drastically reduce risks of infection. The key is helping people to understand what they are and why they are important.

These include practicing safe-sex, whether hetero- or homosexual; avoiding needle-sharing and having open dialogues with other individuals about activities that could pose risks to either party.

Crucial information is available for those that have already contracted HIV in terms of how they can get treatment and prevent from spreading it to others.

We now know that taking effective antiretroviral drugs makes infected people much less infectious, wrote Phil Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, in an article for the Grio. If we know our status and take our medication, we are far less likely to infect our partners.

Healthcare Access

Once people have been properly informed about HIV/AIDS, they need to be able to access the preventative care and treatments currently available.

Access to healthcare is a major component, as HIV/AIDS is a disease that must be managed medically, rather than cured. Sexually active people must get tested and treated, and the African-American community is over-represented in the ranks of the medically uninsured. Approximately 1 in 5 African-Americans (20.7 percent) are without health insurance, compared to 13.7 percent of Caucasian-Americans, according to CDC figures.

HIV testing needs to become a routine, frequent and fundamental component of health care for Black Americans, wrote Wilson.

Wilson stressed the importance of the role that must be played by community-based, governmental and other outreach organizations in providing healthcare services, highlighting several key points:

  •  Every person who tests HIV-positive must be connected to comprehensive medical care, including antiretroviral therapy.
  •  Prevention strategies must be expanded. Traditional approaches to HIV prevention such as condom promotion and behavior modification must be coupled with biomedical strategies that reduce the likelihood of acquiring the virus.
  •  It is now clear that HIV treatment is HIV prevention. Going forward, every AIDS organization will need to be intimately linked to the delivery of health services.

While some may find the expenditure on the fight against AIDS/HIV to be difficult in these financially troubled times, in the long run, it is both right and economically prudent, argues Wilson.

In the fight against AIDS, every infection prevented averts more than $600,000 in future medical costs--not to mention productivity losses that are several times this amount, he wrote. In short, our country can't afford not to do what it takes to put effective HIV prevention and treatment tools to use.