EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR OF CDC ON HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC IN OUR COMMUNITY. My nephew turns 16 this year. As a young American man, he faces a future that can hold promises of education, prosperity and success. As a young African American man, however, he and his peers face among the highest HIV risks in the nation. Today, African Americans continue to have the highest rates of HIV in the United States. Young African American men and women are severely affected, accounting for half of all new infections among those aged 13 to 29. Of these infections, more than half (55%) occur among young Black gay and bisexual men. The reasons for these staggering statistics are many and complex. High prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease in Black communities as well as a range of economic and social factors including poverty, limited access to health care and discrimination, all combine to make young Black men and women more vulnerable to HIV. After nearly thirty years of the HIV epidemic, and more than 200,000 lives lost, we in the African American community risk losing the next generation to this deadly yet entirely preventable disease. We cannot allow this to happen. To end the Black HIV crisis in this country, we must break the vicious cycle of HIV among our youth. As we commemorate National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Sunday, here are three tangible steps we must take… Breaking the cycle of HIV will require us to first break through the wall of complacency surrounding the disease. Although most young people in the United States have known about HIV their entire lives, too many still fail to realize the severity of the disease in our communities. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that despite the staggering toll of HIV among young African Americans, concern about HIV in this population has actually declined over the past decade. The reality is that HIV continues to be costly and deadly. We need to wake up to the fact that HIV is in every corner of our community–affecting our fathers and mothers, those in the prime of their lives as well as our youth. And, more than this, we need to take action to protect ourselves and our loved ones–that means knowing our HIV status, consistently and correctly using condoms or practicing abstinence. Secondly, to break the cycle, we must break through the ignorance. Too many of us–young and old alike–still lack basic information about how HIV is spread and how to prevent it. Among our youth, lack of knowledge is prevalent. A recent survey found that more than a third of those aged 18-29 held at least one misconception about how HIV is transmitted. As teachers, parents, health care providers and public health officials, we urgently need to provide young people with accurate, age-appropriate HIV information, including how to get tested for HIV and other STDs, effectively use condoms and reduce risk behaviors. As individuals, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves. In the fight against this disease, there is no information more critical than learning your HIV status. Today, more than 100,000 African Americans living with HIV are unaware of their status. Getting an HIV test is the first step in protecting yourself and others against this disease. You can start today by visiting www.hivtest.org or www.actagainstaids.org to get the facts about HIV and find a testing location near you. And finally, in order to break the cycle, we must break the silence. HIV can no longer be hidden or shrouded in secrecy. Our collective failure to talk openly and honestly about HIV to our friends, families and children and our refusal to confront homophobia and stigma is deadly. By simply talking about HIV we reduce the stigma attached to this disease, increase knowledge and motivate life-saving behaviors. Simply put, when it comes to HIV prevention, dialogue is power. And while our youth bear the brunt of this epidemic, they are also our greatest weapon in the fight against HIV. They have the power to speak directly to their peers and mobilize them to make real change in their behaviors. The recent explosion in the popularity of social media gives young people unprecedented opportunities to speak out about issues that matter to them–including HIV–in new and innovative ways. The voices of young people are powerful and we need them among the chorus of those fighting against this disease. HIV is among the greatest crises facing our black youth. This Sunday, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, what will you do to help break the cycle? I, for one, will be reaching out to my nephew to continue to open the doors to dialogue around this critically important issue. If you’re a parent, I urge you talk to your child. If you are a young person, discuss HIV with your friends and with your family. Today, and every day, let us commit to doing all we need to do to protect the next generation from this deadly, preventable disease.
Kevin Fenton, M.D., Ph.D., is the Director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention (NCHHSTP) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As NCHHSTP Director, Dr. Fenton oversees all of CDC’s work related to the prevention, control, and elimination of HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, STDs, and TB in the U.S., as well as CDC’s Global AIDS Program (an implementing partner of PEPFAR). Read more:
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