World AIDS Day: “Getting to Zero” remains the ultimate challenge
By Chris Levister
As the world came together for World AIDS Day themed “Getting to Zero”, on Saturday December 1, it was far more educated about the disease than when the global event first began on Dec. 1, 1988.
While recent scientific efforts have resulted in a series of discoveries and advances in understanding and controlling the virus that causes AIDS, this progress has had limited impact on the majority of HIV infected African Americans.
Every nine-and-a-half minutes, a person in the United States becomes infected with HIV and the Black community accounts for nearly half of those infected.
Going into 2013, the statistical landscape of Blacks contracting AIDS is expected to only get worse, according to national data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To date, over 230,000 African Americans have died of AIDS - nearly 40 percent of total deaths - and of the more than 1 million people living with HIV in the United States of America today, almost half are Black. And yet, as a racial group, African Americans represent just 13 percent of the US population.
The estimated lifetime risk of becoming infected with HIV is 1 in 16 for Black males, and 1 in 30 for Black females, a far higher risk than for White males (1 in 104) and White females (1 in 588).
According to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, African Americans "comprise the greatest proportion of HIV/AIDS cases across many transmission categories, including among women, heterosexual men, injection drug users, and infants."
In the Inland Empire African American community where HIV-AIDS cases continue to spike, “Getting to Zero” remains the ultimate challenge. In Rialto home to the annual AIDS Walk Rialto, there are plenty of all too real truths. In a 2007 letter to then President George W. Bush, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) praised the city’s efforts and encouraged “an even larger parade in 2008.”
Fast forward to 2012, faced with crippling budget cuts, dwindling revenues and the sudden death of its founder Pat Green this year, event organizers are struggling to rebuild. Green died of a heart attack February 19, 2012. The award winning non-profit organization Brothers and Sisters in Action she helped found in 2004 is a mere shell of itself.
The organization’s phone number listed on its website has been disconnected. Calls to past organizers were not returned.
Since 2004 B.A.S.I.A has provided HIV/AIDS and substance education, testing client advocacy, prevention and intervention services to Black/African American and underserved communities in San Bernardino County.
“Pat Green was the wind in our sails,” said Jamie Patterson. On World AIDS Day Patterson who has lived with AIDS since 2009 and a handful of B.A.S.I.A. supporters walked quietly down Riverside Avenue part in memory of Pat Green, part in search of the way forward for those affected by the virus and those living with HIV and unaware of their status.
“I think a lot of people are fearful that we’re heading backward,” said Wes A. who was diagnosed with the HIV virus at age 67.
San Bernardino County public health officials say despite representing only 8.5 percent of the population in the county in 2009, African Americans in the region accounted for 21 percent of the new HIV cases in that year.
The Black AIDS Institute released in July its latest report on HIV infection and death rates in the U.S., revealing that infection rates among black gay men have gotten worse. Some Christian churches have stepped up efforts to address the issue.
Pastor Raymond Turner who heads Temple Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino firmly believes the church has a moral responsibility to provide both education and services to the HIV/AIDS community.
“We may not agree with the same sex lifestyle for example but we as a community of faith have to take off the blinders and get involved. This disease is preventable,” said Turner during an interview earlier this year.
"At Temple we preach about abstinence and about sexual purity as the standard. But we also have to deal with the reality that everyone is not living the standard. And we have to give the resources and the information so that, even if they are not going to live up to the standard they are not putting themselves at risk for STDs and HIV," he said.
“Black MSM (men who sleep with men) continue to be first in line when it comes to need, but remain at the back of the line when it comes to assistance,” said Phil Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute.
The institute urged that more importance be placed on the issue, and revealed that black gay men account for 1 in 500 Americans, yet represent nearly 1 in 4 new HIV infections. What is more alarming, they face higher risks of death after being diagnosed from AIDS.
These oft-repeated statistics, the lack of national funding routed towards Black-led AIDS awareness programs, and a scarcity in activism from Blacks as a whole, concerns grassroots groups, advocates, and religious leaders.
“What we need are more heterosexual men in our community to step up on the issue of AIDS. Too many of us are laboring under the illusion of this being a post-racial America while we're still being impacted the greatest in health, jobs, and education,” said Tony Wafford, the Los Angeles-based national director of a Health and Wellness for the National Action Network (NAN).
Wafford aid, the stigma associated with the disease is one reason, but it is only partially to blame for this public health failure. More problematic is the difficulty of reaching the most vulnerable members of the U.S. population who are living with HIV but unaware of their status: racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and disenfranchised, and people who are homeless. These are people who are less likely to be connected to health care professionals and thus less likely to be tested for HIV and linked to care.
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