Pop star Beyonce will participate in campaign; goals include reducing infection rate, increasing testing among African-Americans
Leaders of the African-American community on Tuesday, Sept. 25, launched a major call to action to address the issues of HIV/AIDS within the black community at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The group’s goals include reducing the HIV rates in black America by 50 percent; increasing the number who know their HIV status by 50 percent; increasing the number of those living with HIV who are in care by 50 percent; and reducing the AIDS stigma with black communities by 50 percent.
“AIDS is a black disease no matter how you look at it through the lens of gender, or sexual orientation, or age, socio-economic class, education, or region of the country black people bear the brunt of the epidemic,” said Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.
“Some 30 percent of new cases among gay men are among black men; 40 percent of new cases among men are black; 67 percent of new cases among women are black, and 70 percent of new cases among youth are black. That is why we are calling on this mobilization,” Wilson said.
Mohammad Akhter, M.D., M.P.H., is executive director of the National Medical Association, an organization primarily serving physicians and patients within the African-American community. He spoke of the disproportionately large number of new HIV infections among blacks.
“Why are more than 50 percent of new HIV cases occurring within the African-American community when we are only 13 percent of the people?” Akhter said. “We need to reassess the national strategy on HIV/AIDS to see why it is not working. Shouldn’t we do that after 20 years? If 50 percent of the new cases of HIV are in the African-American community, shouldn’t that be where 50 percent of the resources should be going? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the African-American community?”
Wilson said planning for the current campaign began in June 2006, adding that this milestone includes release of the of the 68-page report “We’re the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: The state of AIDS in black America and what we’re doing about it,” from the Black AIDS Institute.
He acknowledged that earlier efforts to rally the black community to fight AIDS have fallen short, but said this time will be different.
“The reason why I think this is different is that it is the first time there is a national coordinated effort of all sectors of the black community” elected officials at all levels, the media, religious groups and megachurches, a celebrity task force and the civil rights community, he said.
One key element of the call to action is the Test 1 Million effort to have that number of African-Americans take an HIV test by December 2008.
“The testing itself is far less important than two other things,” Wilson said. “One is the conversation that happens when you urge people to get tested. What we are trying to do is change the cultural morals in our community, to create a new dialog.
“The second is to get people into treatment. A test by itself does not prevent new infections, it does not provide care and treatment,” he added. “Or strategy, by engaging specific organizations and sectors, is to get people to make specific commitments” toward a testing goal. Actions could range from a congressional town hall meeting to a church service or an entertainment event.
Wilson said the pop superstar Beyonce is going to work with the campaign on her national tour, which should bring an even higher level of attention to the effort.
Wilson said, “When you look at the different sectors and they say, “‘we are committed to participating in this by setting a goal of how many people we are going to test,’ then they are engaged.”
Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association, a wire service to more than 200 black-owned newspapers across the country. She said, “We believe it is our responsibility to step up to the plate. Too many people in the black community still see AIDS as a white male gay disease.”
The association has committed to educating the community to the facts through a series of 25 columns authored by leading political, religious and entertainment figures, starting the first week in October. The series will cover a full range of topics, from prevention, to accessing care, to the politics of AIDS.
Ronald Johnson, deputy director of AIDS Action, stressed the need for the U.S. to create a domestic national AIDS plan, something that the government requires of other nations that it assists in the fight against AIDS.
“We have had strategies, we have had plans. The dust on them is inches thick,” Johnson said. “The next president has to be committed, and I am confident that the next president will be committed to a real strategy. We need concrete outcomes and accountability.”
Johnson’s optimism is fueled by the fact that more than a hundred AIDS organizations have signed on to the call for such a national plan, and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards released a detailed AIDS plan on Sept. 23.
“Ending the epidemic in the black community,” Johnson said, “has to be a centerpiece of any national plan. I’m hopeful that we are going to do this.”
Debra Fraser-Howze, CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, said, “I think there is a coming together; all of the stars are lining up for us. HIV is an essential part of the presidential debate. And the ministers have decided that the plans have been on the shelf for too long.”
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has championed the Stop AIDS in Prisons Act of 2007, which would provide routine, opt-out HIV testing with pre and post-test counseling to all federal prisoners. It would link a positive test result to access to care. Incarceration is associated with increased risk for HIV.
The House passed the bill by unanimous consent later that afternoon. However, there is not a companion bill in the Senate, nor has anyone yet agreed to lead the effort in that chamber.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., in adding her support to the call for action said, “This is not an ideological issue, it is a moral and humanitarian call for equality and justice, and each of us must do our part.”
The 68-page document “We’re the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: The state of AIDS in black America and what we’re doing about it” is available online at www.blackaids.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 28, 2007