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Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post Opinion: HIV/AIDS and the black community: a continued American tragedy

HIV/AIDS and the black community: a continued American tragedy
by Jonathan Capehart, August 4, 2011

Two troubling aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are readily apparent in the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the “Estimated HIV Incidence in the United States, 2006–2009.” The annual number of infections is holding steady at about 50,000. Great that it’s not rising. Bewildering that it hasn’t decreased over the last decade. More alarming is the report’s further confirmation that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is the equivalent of a five-alarm fire in the African American community, with young black gay men bearing the brunt of it.

In each of the years from 2006 to 2009, black men who have sex with men ages 13 to 29 led all groups becoming HIV-positive. In 2006, they were 49 percent of new infections. By 2009, they were 60 percent. All told, the number of young, black, gay men who became HIV-positivejumped from 4,400 in 2006 to 6,500 in 2009.

HIV/AIDS is an indiscriminate killer that cuts through every socioeconomic group in the United States. But as you will see in the chart below, the epidemic with no cure is devastating the African American community overall.

There were 103.9 per 100,000 black men who became HIV-positive in 2009 compared to 15.9 per 100,000 white men. And 39.7 per 100,000 black women seroconverted compared to 2.6 per 100,000 white women.

An oddly hopeful nugget from the report was the revelation that many young, gay, black men already have HIV but don’t know it. I characterize this as hopeful because knowing your status is key to breaking the back of this epidemic. But as Elizabeth-Ann Chandler of the CDC sadly reminded me in a phone call, “Reaching them is very difficult.”

The reasons for this are numerable, but chief among them is stigma. In a June 2010 post on this very issue, I highlighted the barbershop story told by Dr. David Malebranche at a White House conference to show the power of breaking through the silence that is making African Americans willing accomplices in the epidemic’s advance.

Getting tested and into treatment if you’re positive is vitally important to protecting your partner(s) and slowing and eventually stopping new infections. If you’re negative, being armed with information to stay that way is equally important in bringing HIV/AIDS to heel. The Obama administration released a national strategy last year focused on targeting scarce resources in communities and at populations that need it most.

“What we’re doing is making sure that the money actually follows the epidemic,” Kevin Fenton, director of HIV prevention at CDC, told reporters in a briefing. I’m talking to Dr. Fenton about all this this morning and will report back. This issue is too important to leave to one post.

[Clarification: Above, I wrote, “In each of the years from 2006 to 2009, black men who have sex with men ages 13 to 29 led all groups becoming HIV-positive. In 2006, they were 49 percent of new infections.” To be clear, black men who have sex with men led all other gay or bisexual men of the same age in groups becoming HIV-positive. In 2006, they were 49 percent of new infections among young gay and bisexual men.]

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