Black America’s response to the AIDS crisis is finally gaining momentum. More Black people than ever before know someone with HIV/AIDS and/or are talking about it.
In light of this progress, it is tempting to think that the AIDS epidemic in our community is under control. But this is no time to be complacent. Black people are still being diagnosed, progressing to AIDS and dying from the disease more often than any other racial group in America.
To be fair, the progress we’ve made against AIDS is remarkable. High-profile community members ranging from Oprah to Obama have taken HIV tests in front of the television cameras in a bid to encourage other Black Americans to get tested. And just last month, many of our community leaders came together with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to plan the next phase of the “Heightened National Response to the HIV Crisis among African Americans,” which is spawning innovative HIV prevention campaigns across the United States.
This is exactly what’s needed—we need to take responsibility for the health of our community. And in some ways, all this increased public education is beginning to pay off. In a recent survey, Black people were the only ethnic group to say that HIV is the number one health problem in America.
So why do I still say, “AIDS in America today is a Black disease?” The truth is, while awareness—and lip service—about this disease may be rising, too many of us still don’t know our HIV status, aren’t in appropriate care and treatment, and aren’t taking concrete steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones from becoming infected. When it comes to this disease, we’ve got to walk the talk.
The facts remain startling. Over 50% of HIV-positive African Americans do not know they are HIV positive. For those who do get tested, it is often too late: Too late for treatment to be fully effective, too late to stop the progression from HIV to AIDS and too late to prevent significantly more AIDS-related deaths in our communities.
And there is a cruel irony here: Many of our people are dying just as HIV treatment reaches new heights. Today’s medications mean HIV can be successfully treated over the long term with just 1 or 2 pills a day. This is amazing progress compared to just a decade ago, when treatment was difficult to take and involved lots of pills. But because we’re not getting tested for HIV early and often, many of our brothers and sisters are missing out on these advances.
Behind all of this is the ongoing challenge of HIV stigma. Too many people are still too scared to take the test for fear of how others may react to a positive diagnosis. And too many people are discouraged by damaging misinformation and myths in our community about HIV. But times have changed. Today, the stigma Black America really needs to be concerned about is the shame of not getting tested, and thereby not doing what it takes to end the AIDS epidemic in our communities. It is time for each one of us to take responsibility for the health—and the future—of our community.
I am one of a growing army of Black folks who are determined to safeguard our future. For now, AIDS is a Black disease. But when we have a clear plan, with specific goals and objectives, we do overcome. We learned that with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And I can assure you, we will learn that as we work to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America.
In fact, at the Black AIDS Institute, we already have a plan to stop AIDS. Our “Test One Million” campaign will:
Black America can win the battle against HIV/AIDS. But it’s going to take all of us to play our part—and be part of the solution. We need regular HIV testing for all Black people, access to early treatment for those of us who test positive, and education to combat the misinformation and stigma that surrounds HIV.
Yes, Black people are finally talking about HIV/AIDS. And now it’s time to turn words into action. Take control. Talk to your family and loved ones about HIV and get tested at least once a year.
Phill Wilson was diagnosed with HIV over a quarter century ago. He is the founder and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute. For more information about the Test One Million campaign or to find free confidential HIV testing in your area, go to www.blackaids.org.