Marking National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

February 7 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Unfortunately, what was true last year, the year before, and the decade before that remains true today: the Black community is the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the US. In fact, it not overstating the situation to say HIV is a crisis in the Black community in America.

The numbers don’t lie: Black people accounted for an estimated 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents aged 13 years or older in 2010, despite representing just 12 percent of the US population. In Massachusetts, Black people are just six percent of our population but comprise 30 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS. Black women account for 45 percent of all women living with HIV in our Commonwealth.

The Office of Minority Health of the US Department of Health and Human Services sums it up this way:

  • African American males have almost 7.8 times the AIDS rate as white males.
  • African American females have 23 times the AIDS rate as white females.
  • African American men are seven times as likely to die from HIV/AIDS as Non-Hispanic White men.
  • African American women are 15 times as likely to die from HIV/AIDS as Non-Hispanic White women.
  • African American children are twice as likely to be diagnosed with HIV infection, as compared to the White children.
  • In 2011, African Americans were 8.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV infection, as compared to the White population.

When the rates of HIV infection are broken out for Black gay and bisexual men and transgender people―primarily transgender women―the numbers are even more alarming:

  • In 2010 Black gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men represented an estimated 72 percent (10,600) of new infections among all Black men and 36 percent of an estimated 29,800 new HIV infections among all gay and bisexual men. As HIV Plus magazine noted in a sobering post, at the current rate of infection, one in four Black gay men will become HIV positive by age 25 and one in two will have HIV by age 35.
  • More new HIV infections (4,800) occurred among young Black gay and bisexual men (aged 13-24) than any other subgroup of gay and bisexual men.
  • Among transgender people in 2010, the highest percentages of newly identified HIV-positive test results were among racial and ethnic minorities, with Black people accounting for 4.1 percent of newly identified positive test results. By comparison, Latinos comprised 3 percent, American Indians/Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders each accounted for 2 percent, and white people 1 percent.
  • In New York City, from 2007-2011, there were 191 new diagnoses of HIV infection among transgender people, 99 percent of which were among transgender women. Ninety percent of these newly diagnosed trans women were Black or Latino.

There are multiple and complex reasons for the disparate rate of HIV infection in the Black community. Black people do not engage in risky sexual behavior at higher rates than people of other ethnicities. (That said, throughout the AIDS epidemic—thanks to racism or the temptation to engage in “blame the victim” thinking (or both)—it has been posited that black gay and bisexual men engage in more risky sexual behaviors than white or Latino gay and bisexual men and that this accounts for the disparities in infection rates. But this theory has been thoroughly debunked by numerous studies. Some of these studies, in fact, have found the opposite: black gay and bisexual men actually engage in lower levels of risky behavior than their racial counterparts.)

But Black people as a group (as with any other racial/ethnic group) are more likely to have sex with other Black people. Given that a higher percentage of them are living with the virus compared to other racial/ethnic groups and their risk of infection increases with each new sexual partner. Additionally, factors such as higher rates of poverty and incarceration contribute to disproportionate HIV rates in the Black community. Indeed, a study published last year by The Fenway Institute found a correlation between a positive diagnosis of HIV in black MSM and high rates of unemployment and low socioeconomic status, among other factors.

There is some positive news, though. HIV testing is one of the most important tools we have to stem the spread of the virus, and Black people are more likely than those of other races/ethnicities to report they have had at least one HIV test―65 percent compared with 46 percent of Hispanic/Latino people and 41 percent of white people.

Knowing your status―and promptly seeking treatment if you are diagnosed with HIV―is the best way to maintain your health and stop the spread of the virus.

As we mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day―which is continuing with its theme of the last few years, “I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper”―organizers are advocating four actions members of the Black community can take:

  • Get educated about the basics of HIV/AIDS in your local communities
  • Get tested―it is critical for the prevention of HIV. The Fenway Institute offers free or low-cost HIV testing, as does Fenway Health.
  • Get involved―organize a testing event, talk about the importance of HIV prevention at your house of worship or faith-based organization, share your story of living with HIV, support a local AIDS services provider.
  • If you have HIV, get treated. Receiving medical care and taking HIV medication helps you stay healthy and reduces your risk of passing HIV on to others. Untreated, HIV leads to AIDS and can cause early death.

Ultimately, it takes courage to raise awareness about HIV by sharing personal experiences, volunteering for a community HIV services organization, or caring for someone who is living with HIV. But that’s what needed now. In the words of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Spokesperson Marvelyn Brown, “Education is so, so important…whether it’s 10 people or 20 people or just two, start the conversation.”

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