Still carrying the AIDS burden

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 9, 2012 - 9:58:47 AM

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WASHINGTON ( - “Black America has a serious problem with HIV,” said Dr, Gregory Pappas, M.D., Ph.D., senior deputy director of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Administration of the D.C. Dept. of Health, told delegates at the International AIDS Conference recently held here July 26. 

“Two to three people are infected every day. It is particularly high where Black people and gay people live. In this city that is half Black, 75 percent of HIV cases are Black. Among women 92 percent of them are Black. This disease is disproportionately Black.”

“I want to dispel an urban legend that D.C. is the worst in the world,” Dr. Pappas continued July 26. “About 50 percent of people who are HIV positive live in 12 cities, and D.C. is one of those cities … We’re comparable to the other 12 cities. We’re not the best; we’re not the worst.”

In addition to the District of Columbia, those 12 cities include Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and San Juan, Puerto Rico—all with significant Black populations.

The District, however, has seen a decrease in deaths and new infections. But it has higher numbers of people living with HIV.

“Our death rate has dropped more than 50 percent over the past three years. We have no babies born with HIV. Our goal is zero deaths by 2014. We are looking at treating the whole person. We have an coordinated approach to treating patients,” said Dr. Mohammad Akhter, D.C. director of health.

“What created the difference in D.C. was very good research and other resources, the leadership of the mayor and city council. They have a 20-year history of fighting HIV, highly trained and highly motivated staff, activists, community involvement and political activists.”

In a session on Engagement Across Black Communities, Alabama State legislator Laura Hall, who is also chair of the Governor’s Commission on AIDS, told delegates, “We are still having difficulty getting people to understand that this is our disease.”

“Community-based organizations must come together and get their legislators attention,” she said, sharing how an Alabama Media Day brought together HIV activists and those living with HIV and legislators. “Hold your elected officials accountable. Be a face and a voice for those who can’t,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Blacks represent 14 percent of the U.S. population and account for 44 percent of people living with HIV in the US and 44 percent of new infections each year.

The rate of new HIV infections for Black men is six times as high of that of White men and more than two times that of Hispanic men and Black women. For  Black women the HIV infection rate is 15 times as high as that of White women and more than three times that of Hispanic women.

Why are the numbers for Blacks continuing to go up? “Poverty and lack of education are fueling this epidemic,” according to Dr. Pappas. “Black heterosexuals have too many partners and don’t use condoms. The disease spreads quicker through small tightly knit populations.”

According to Dr. Akhter, in the 1990s the problems fueling the epidemic were tied to stigma. “No one wanted to talk about it, the fear of the unknown, fatalism, whatever is going to happen will happen and the immigrant community who thought it wouldn’t touch them, they were immune,” he said.

“Today the stigma has gone and we have partners with the church community. There is more community awareness,” he said.

But that community awareness has been insufficient in reaching the Black community whose numbers continue to climb. The District has instituted a new program to reach Black seniors over the age of 50 whose numbers of new infections are rising. The city has raised the high-end age of target populations from 64 to 80.