Time for "A Real Conversation" on HIV/AIDS and Blacks

June 27th is National HIV Testing Day

Today is the 18th Annual National HIV Testing Day. The day was first observed on June 27, 1995 and was established as an annual observance to promote HIV testing.  Nearly two decades later, far too many Americans are infected and are unaware—an estimated 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS, “but almost 1 in 5 do not know they are infected.”   

The number of new HIV infections has finally stabilized at about 50,000 per year from 130,000 per year during the epidemic's peak in the mid-1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately the epicenter of the domestic epidemic is Black America. African-American and other Black communities represent only 14 percent of the nation’s population but account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, reports  the CDC.  

These statistics represent the need “for a real conversation” about how we can prevent new HIV/AIDS cases within the Black community,  Vanessa Cullins, MD told EBONY.com. Dr. Cullins is Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Vice President  of External Medical Affairs. “That’s why National HIV Testing Day is so important.”

“It’s a reminder to everyone who is having sex—especially to those who are not in a monogamous relationship—that it is important to be tested for STIs and especially HIV,” said Dr. Cullins. “Testing is very important for the African American community because we are at increased risk for having untreated STIs and HIV/AIDS.”

Planned Parenthood provided 680,000 HIV tests for men and women in 2011, according to the organization. Some 15 percent of Planned Parenthood patients in 2011 were African Americans—that’s about 400,000 people.

Black people tend to be “late testers” for HIV and are not diagnosed until after they've been HIV positive for years—and are more likely to develop AIDS.  Late testers have less chance to benefit from lifesaving medications—and are also “extremely infectious," reports the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s happening for a number of reasons including the stigma that is associated with HIV,”  Dr. Cullins told EBONY.com. “We also are less likely to be insured so it is more difficult to access testing.”

There is some good news. Recent data show that new infections—these are called seroconversions—among Black women are declining for the first time in over a decade. “New HIV infections among Black women [decreased by] 21 percent between 2008 and 2010,” CDC reported in December 2012.

Black women continue to account for more HIV infections among women than any other race or ethnicity. Infection rates among Black women are nearly 15 times higher than those among White women. Seroconversions among Black women are rising the fastest in the South and rural states.

Meanwhile: Black gay and bisexual men continue to suffer the highest new infection rates in the country.  The number of new infections have been particularly “alarming” among young Black gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 19, according to CDC. New seroconversions have increased by almost half between 2006 and 2009. 

The crisis is so severe in some American cities that "one in two Black men who have sex with other men is HIV positive," according to a report released by the Black AIDS Institute last July at AIDS 2012 in Washington.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” Keith R. Green, MSW told EBONY.com. Green is the chairman of the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, which promotes sexual health, wellness and empowerment among Black gay and bisexual men. “Black gay and bisexual men are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. That is largely because of not knowing their status and not taking appropriate action when we do.”

Seroconversions and infection rates among Black gay and bi men in Chicago are grim:  Up to 35 percent of Black gay men in Chicago are HIV-positive, according to a December 2012 report by the Chicago Department of Public Health. Up to two-thirds are unaware of their infection.

 “Having a national day emphasizes the importance of HIV testing on this population,” CBGMC’s Keith R. Green told EBONY.com. “And it adds to the consciousness that HIV is something that  affects people who look, live and love like me.”

Despite the challenges faced by Black gay and bisexual men—nationwide and in Chicago—solely focusing  messaging on HIV testing runs the danger of creating “HIV fatigue,” said Green.  “As a community, when need to begin addressing the larger context for HIV/AIDS in our community. That’s why we choose to address testing throughout Pride month. It expands the message and empowers people to take ownership and action.”

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, The Atlantic, EBONY, the Los Angeles Times and others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom