AIDS is a cold, hard pandemic – a cannon barreling throughout the African American community in record numbers. Thus, it mandates straightforward, honest dialogue about who can stop it and how.
It mandates Tony Wafford.
Mr. Wafford, has worked tirelessly as President of the National Action Network's Los Angeles Chapter, and was recently appointed NAN's new National Director of Health and Wellness for his proactive efforts to help increase testing and educate people about HIV/AIDS. Rev. Al Sharpton established NAN in 1991 as one of the leading Civil Rights organizations in the nation.
One of Mr. Wafford's first acts as National Director of Health and Wellness will be to launch NAN's "I Choose Life" campaign to address HIV/AIDS in the African American community. The three-year project is a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) ACT! Against AIDS Leadership Initiative.
The initiative will join communication, mobilization, and outreach to help bring about a unique approach to the challenges around HIV prevention among African Americans.
Like Mr. Wafford, the CDC has ranked fighting HIV/AIDS among Blacks its top HIV prevention priority because Blacks account for about half (49 percent) of the people who get HIV/AIDS in the U.S., although they make up only 13 percent of the population.
But as striking as these figures are, they aren't the ones that initially moved Mr. Wafford to act.
Debra Wafer, a good friend and then-physician's assistant, invited him to a community meeting about 10 years ago. He was reluctant and tired after a very long day, but he went anyway. While he was preparing his meal, a presenter cited some statistics that changed his appetite and his understanding about HIV/AIDS forever.
"Sixty-three percent of all newly reported cases of HIV infections is Black women 22-45 years old," Mr. Wafford recalled.
"Well at the time my baby was 22. I got my plate and looked around to see if anyone else was shocked, because I hadn't heard this before. I had heard about the numbers for homosexuals, and I had heard a little bit for dope fiends, but I hadn't heard anything about Black women. Immediately I thought if that's true, then who's speaking for my baby? My daughter? And as I delved further into it, I found that no one was speaking for her," Mr. Wafford said.
At the time, he was working with A-list Hollywood celebrities through the famed Terrie Williams public relations agency. Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis, Al Hayman, Anita Baker, Avery Brooks, Attorney Johnnie Cochran, Rev. Sharpton, Ruby Bridges, and others were among his contacts and clientele.
People often ask him why did he leave such an exciting, lucrative career working with Hollywood stars on a day-to-day basis to work in the community around HIV. His answer was simple, he said, "I'm not HIV infected. Nobody in my family's infected or has died. I don't have a dear friend who's infected or has died. I'm not gay and I don't shoot dope, but does any of that have to be true for you to care about Black people's lives?"
Besides, he never felt he had to give up one community to help another. He simply merged the two. He teamed up with Al Hayman Productions to create the Fighting HIV through R&B testing campaign, which gave free concert tickets to anyone who tested for HIV at various concerts across the country. On their first try, they tested 195 people based on free tickets to see Destiny's Child. No radio. No flyers. No formal advertisement, just word of mouth.
Within a two-year period, they repeated the formula with other R&B celebrities such as Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, and Little Bow Wow. They went on to test more than 30,000 Black people in 24 states and 66 cities. The oldest HIV positive person they found was a 65-year-old woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the youngest was a 14-year-old girl in Seattle, Washington.
With all of the testing, Mr. Wafford said, they had only scratched the surface of the problem and all he could think of was how much work was yet to be done. "The reason we're dying is because we don't want to have hard conversation as heterosexual men, but if we had brothers speaking up, we could turn this thing around tomorrow. We don't want to say anything about sexuality. We don't want to deal with the homosexual part. We don't want to talk about the rate of male to female vs. female to male transmission," he said. "Haven't enough Black women died yet? How many have to die before this becomes an issue," he asked.
Mr. Wafford argued that until real discussions are held around sexual abuse and molestations, mental illness, and homosexuality, Black women (ranked 64 percent in 2005) would remain at the top of all new HIV cases.
In addition to more dialogue, he advocates testing all men for HIV upon release from prisons and authorizing doctors to inform spouses about each other's HIV status, as with other sexually transmitted diseases.
Mr. Wafford created Wafford Consulting as part of his advocacy, and to in part promote a culturally appropriate, grass roots approach to tackle the disease. With "Takin It to the Street," he and a core group of volunteers distributed condoms and information about HIV to barber shops, beauty salons and shoe repair shops.
Some of his other professional work around HIV/AIDS includes:
* In 2000, he worked as co-chair of the Americas Community Working Group as part of its HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN)
* He created the Women Like You HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness video that linked the NAACP, HPTN and Pfizer and won four awards for Pfizer
* In 2003, he helped more than 150 African American churches to create more than 300 HIV ministries throughout Los Angeles County, and
* In 2004, at the University of Southern California, he convened The Cost and Casualties of Silence: African American AIDS Summit, which aired live on C-SPAN the largest summit addressing HIV/AIDS in the Black community.
Whether he is moving in Hollywood circles, the streets or community meetings, Mr. Wafford's straightforwardness is bound to bring ultimate success to NAN's Health and Wellness Office.
Although many will meet Tony Wafford for their first time in his new post or encounter the same down-to-earth husband, father, brother and friend that they have known all along, they'll find him fighting for his people.
"My mission is not to figure out where HIV/AIDS came from. That's not my calling. Right now, all I know is my daughter's at risk, and it's here and it's 100 percent avoidable," Mr. Wafford said.