When five gay White men were diagnosed with a mysterious ailment in June 1981, no one could foresee the impact that their illness — eventually identified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS — would have on all our lives. By 1985, gay White men made up 60 percent of those diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. But over the years, more and more Blacks were among the infected: from tennis great Arthur Ashe and newsman Max Robinson to our neighbors, friends or family members.
The number of people who developed HIV/AIDS peaked in the mid-1990s, held at bay with powerful drugs that slowed the onset of disease. For a few years the new infection rates even declined. But the decrease in cases has now leveled off, and among Blacks, the numbers of the newly-infected continue to rise.
We mark the 20th anniversary of the epidemic with this fact: AIDS is the leading killer of Blacks between the ages of 25 and 44. "The HIV epidemic continues to be a major health crisis facing African-American communities," says Helene D. Gayle, M.D., M.P.H., director, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention.
"Although African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than half of the estimated 40,000 new HIV infections that occur in this country each year," she explains. "These high rates of new HIV infections point to the threat HIV poses to the future health, well-being and human potential of many Black communities."
Gay Black men, and women
Among Black gay and bisexual men, the statistics are even more alarming, Dr. Gayle says. A recent study found that among Black men ages 23 to 29 who have sex with men, 32 percent were already infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Nearly 1 in 50 Black men are infected with HIV, three times the rate for White men.
AIDS activists also say the high rate of infection among Black men — particularly those who are "living on the down-low," or engaging in secretive bisexual behavior — is fueling an increase in infections rates among Black women. One in 160 sisters is HIV-positive, compared with 1 in 3,000 White women.
Women must become more proactive in guarding their health against the virus, says Lorraine Cole, Ph.D., president and CEO of the National Black Women's Health Project. "HIV tests should become part of the dating scene protocol before relationships become intimate," Cole says. "Women need to become comfortable asking their partners about previous sexual partners and practices, and be able to confidently counter resistance from their partners to use condoms."
The best cure: prevention
"There's no question that anybody engaged in any of the high-risk behaviors should be tested for HIV," says Dr. David Satcher, the U.S. Surgeon General. "By high-risk behavior, I mean non-monogamous, unprotected sex (heterosexual or homosexual), injection drug use, and even tattooing." (Tattoos can draw blood, so people who get tattoos should make sure technicians wear latex gloves and use needles and ink only once.)
"Ultimately we need a vaccine," says Dr. Satcher. "But short of having a vaccine — which we certainly won't have within the next five years — we really need to be more effective at educating people, motivating them to change their behaviors, and even mobilizing communities much more effectively than we have in the past against this epidemic."
What you can do
To protect yourself and help stem the rise of HIV/AIDS in our community, take these steps:
* Get tested. June 27 is National HIV Testing Day. For facts on HIV counseling and testing, contact the CDC's National STD and AIDS Hotline at (800) 342-AIDS and www.hivtest.org/home.htm.
* Talk with your partner about your sexual histories before engaging in sex. Use condoms during each act of sexual intercourse — no exceptions.
* Donate money and time to AIDS organizations, such as:
African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute
The Leadership Campaign on AIDS
Balm in Gilead
* Teach children and teenagers about HIV/AIDS. To find age-appropriate information, visit these sites:
American Health Association
* Help educate brothers who engage in bisexual behavior. Check out Us Helping Us, an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment organization; contact (888) 547-3235; (202) 546-8200.
* Support men in prison who have AIDS or who are at risk. Volunteer for or donate to: Alliance for Inmates with AIDS (ALLIA), 80 Fifth Ave., Suite 1500, New York, NY, 10011, 212-675-3288, x206; or AIDS in Prison Project, The Osborne Association, 809 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, NY 10455; (718) 842-0500.
* Write your congressional representative to support continued funding for AIDS research and treatment. To find your rep go to www.house.gov or www.senate.gov.