Today marks the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day. While we have come a long way since the early days of the 1980’s, when little was known about the disease, the African-American community is still very much at risk. Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, says the epidemic among African-Americans is bigger than you think. Wilson spoke with ESSENCE.com about what we can do to help rid the disease from our community, what he expects from the Obama administration, and the startling findings from the institute’s latest report.
ESSENCE.COM: The Black AIDS Institute celebrates the eighth annual “Heroes in the Struggle” gala this week. Tell us about the event.
PHILL WILSON: We’re putting on this gala as an opportunity to expose the lie that Black people have not been involved in fighting AIDS from the very beginning and to recognize those who have been on the frontline in providing leadership and raising awareness about the fight. People are starting to think, oh well, we’ve solved that problem. Yes, we’ve made tremendous advances in some communities, but in Black communities, HIV/AIDS continues to be a devastating disease. This year, we wanted to acknowledge the impact that AIDS has had on Black women particularly by recognizing the unique contributions Black women are making in the fight against AIDS.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think is the most important thing Black women need to know about the current state of the AIDS epidemic in our community?
WILSON: That we can end this epidemic and that each and every one of us can protect ourselves and save our communities. There is no reason why Black women in America (other than cases of rape) get infected. If you insist that your partner uses a condom, then you can protect yourself. When we talk to our girls, we have to help them understand that they are valuable, beautiful and powerful just as they are. We also need to speak to the lie that there are not any Black men who want to protect their partners because there are lots of brothers who are extremely committed.
ESSENCE.COM: Has AIDS become a “Black disease?”
WILSON: No matter how you look at it, Black people bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in this country through the lens of gender, sexual orientation, age, social economic class, level of education or region of where you live. We are 50 percent of the 1.2 million Americans living with AIDS, so that means one out of every two people living with AIDS in this country is Black. Nearly 50 percent of the 30,000 new cases per year are Black people. We are 30 percent of the new cases among gay men; we are two-thirds of the new cases among women; we are 65 percent of the new cases among babies; and we’re 70 percent of the new cases among adolescents. So part of what we do is raise awareness about these numbers and communicate to people that while these are the numbers today, we can do something about it for tomorrow.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think the Obama administration needs to do to help the situation?
WILSON: The first thing is to make a commitment to develop a national AIDS strategy. When the United States gives money to developing countries, it requires that those countries have a national plan to fight AIDS. Yet we don’t have a national plan ourselves. The president-elect and hopefully new first lady really need to lend their names to a mass Black mobilization in the same way the election was built around a mass effort based on individual commitment. We also need to make an appropriate investment in AIDS prevention. We recently made a commitment of up to 48 billion dollars to reauthorize PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. That was an appropriate thing to do but if we can afford to spend 48 billion dollars to fight AIDS [and malaria and tuberculosis] in developing countries, then surely we can afford the 1.2 billion dollars that the experts say we should seriously be spending on AIDS prevention here.
ESSENCE.COM: What did the Black AIDS Institute’s recent report Left Behind! Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic reveal?
WILSON: This report puts the U.S. epidemic in a global context. It really asks the question: If Black America was a country unto itself, what would the AIDS epidemic look like and how would we compare to other countries? What we found is that we would have one of the worst epidemics in the world; worst than the AIDS epidemic in Haiti. For example, Black men in Manhattan would have a higher HIV/AIDS rates than the rates of Black men in South Africa.
ESSENCE.COM: How can we get more people to get out, get tested and find out their status?
WILSON: We need to continue to work on normalizing HIV testing and show people how easy it is. We need to make HIV tests more available so that anyone can go to their doctor or a testing van on the street. Do you know many people still believe you have to draw blood and that it takes two weeks to get your results back? Today, HIV tests are offered for free. They are painless; you can take it without being stuck by needles. It’s easy, no more blood and you can get results back in less than an hour. Better yet, you can get information that could save your life.