HIV and the Black Community
Why is HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacting the African American community?
The black community has been disproportionately impacted by the AIDS epidemic. African Americans experience more HIV-related deaths than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. and make up nearly half of all new HIV cases. And while the causes of these unbalanced statistics range from socioeconomic factors to cultural misconceptions, there is a movement to remedy the conditions that got us here and increase our chances of survival.
What is HIV?
“HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) is caused by a virus,” says Scyatta A. Wallace, Ph.D, a psychologist and former Chair of the Committee on Psychology and AIDS for the American Psychological Association. “The virus enters your body and starts to attack the immune system, which makes it really hard for your body to fight [infections and disease.]” She notes that after a certain period of time, HIV can cause AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Patients are considered to have entered the AIDS stage when they show a certain number of bodily symptoms, such as pneumonia. “It's the doctor’s way of distinguishing how advanced HIV has become for a person,” continues Wallace. “Every person is different in how their body handles HIV and AIDS. Therefore, there is no way to tell if someone has HIV or AIDS by just looking them. You have to be tested for it.”
Blacks and HIV: By the Numbers
Blacks are the hardest hit group of Americans when it comes to HIV and AIDS, a trend that has been continuing throughout the country for the past several years.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 16 African American men and 1 in 32 African American women will get HIV at some point in their lives,” continues Wallace. The CDC also notes that in 2010 African Americans made up only about 13% of the population, but accounted for nearly 50% of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents. And “in 2009, the Centers estimated that the rate of new HIV infections in African American women was 15 times as high as the rate for white women,” says C. Virginia Fields, President and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc. “It’s hard to believe that we’re three decades into this epidemic and we’re still seeing numbers like this.”
How Did We Get Here?
But where did these high numbers come from? “There are many ideas about why HIV in blacks is such a big problem,” continues Fields. “Factors such as poverty, lack of access and barriers to health care are contributing to this growing epidemic. Financial hardship may lead to risky behaviors, such as exchanging sex for money or drugs.”
Fields notes that the stigma of AIDS also looms large in the black community. “We often still mistakenly believe that HIV is a white, gay disease,” continues Fields. “This view may make it difficult for blacks to learn about or discuss their HIV status with others. Stigma may also silence men who have sex with men, but don’t tell their female sex partners.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
No one’s really sure about whether the numbers of HIV infections among African Americans will decrease. But while the scientists work on curing the disease, our community can work to stop the spread. “Community-based action is vital,” says Fields, who proclaims that education, awareness, and vigilance are three vital components of stopping the disease. “Ultimately, this is a community-based crisis, and our communities must always have a seat at the table and a say in policies and practices to combat HIV/AIDS.” Her organization works closely with faith-based communities and religious leaders who continue to spread the word about contracting the disease, in the hopes that one day our rates of infection will decrease and our communities will no longer be in harm's way.
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Dana Robinson is the Managing Health and Fitness Producer.
Photo Credit: voatibetanenglish.com