On the Frontline of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: With Infection Rates Still Escalating among African Americans, Researchers, Scholars and Activists Wonder If the Battle Is a Losing One

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

On the Frontline of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: With Infection Rates Still Escalating among African Americans, Researchers, Scholars and Activists Wonder If the Battle Is a Losing One


Hawkins, B. Denise, Black Issues in Higher Education


Most days, Cynthia Davis is an exasperated trooper who can always be found teaching and preaching from the frontline of the AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles. The very disease that's crippling and killing those she's trying to save with prevention, education and intervention is also what fuels her resolve to return day after day to a place where burnout is high, death is an almost everyday event and where the community's concerns about HIV/AIDS often get lost in the daily struggle to survive.

Still this community services administrator and assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles keeps on pushing for clinical care for those living with HIV/AIDS.

"One person can only do so much," says Davis, adding she could work 24-7 and still not keep up with the requests she receives to speak on HIV/AIDS. She's been coordinating HIV/AIDS efforts at Drew, one of four predominantly minority medical schools in the nation, since 1983, and she says her resolve is still high.

But Davis and other veterans of the AIDS war are starting to wonder. With infection rates still escalating among the homosexual community and increasingly among African-American females, especially those living in the South, is the battle a losing one?

When the global epidemic got its start in the early 1980s, little was understood about how social behaviors and socioeconomic conditions gave rise to the spread of HIV/AIDS among Blacks. It became the work of Black health care providers, scholars and researchers. Drs. Mindy and Robert Fullilove of Columbia University were among those immediately pressed into service to respond to a menacing disease that few understood at the time. In fact, Mindy was one of the first Black researchers to investigate the roots of the epidemic.

The 1990s were marked by a disproportionate rise in HIV/AIDS among African Americans, and the pioneers in the Black public health community had to step up their pace dramatically in order to keep up with the spread of the scourge. But despite all their efforts, the prevalence of HIV infection among Blacks has doubled while remaining stable among Whites, according to the federal government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey released in February.

According to the survey, the HIV infection rate among Blacks ages 18 to 59 was 1.1 percent in 1991, or about five times higher than that found in Whites. By 2001, the rate was 2.14 percent, or 13 times greater than the rate seen in Whites. Currently, African Americans account for more AIDS diagnoses--both those living with the disease and HIV-related deaths--than any other racial or ethnic minority group, as related in a report of the survey findings issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Noting that the increased spending on intervention and prevention seem to have had little impact, Davis says, "You would think that after 20 years and after all of those efforts, the prevalence rates would decrease and behaviors would change."

LINGERING ATTITUDES

The survey indicating that HIV infection rates have doubled in Blacks in the last decade was only one of two sobering reports on HIV/AIDS issued during Black History Month. The second report, published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, concluded that a significant proportion of African Americans continue to believe that government scientists are responsible for creating HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and are using the virus to control the Black population.

Men were more likely than women to believe HIV/AIDS-related conspiracy theories, but were also less likely to use condoms to protect themselves from transmitting the virus, according to the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and conducted by RAND Corp. and Oregon State University.

Davis wasn't surprised by the findings. "I see it and hear it everyday," she says, among Drew's client base in South Central Los Angeles. …

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