AIDS: The Black Plague

By Dyer, Ervin | The New Crisis, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview
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AIDS: The Black Plague

Dyer, Ervin, The New Crisis


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Blacks are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but account for nearly 38 percent of all AIDS cases reported since the epidemic began and 47 percent of all cases reported in 2000. Blacks now make up 54 percent of new HIV infections each year. In fact, AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women aged 25 to 34 and also the number one killer of Black men between the ages 35 and 44. What's most alarming is that new HIV and AIDS cases have increased in the African American community even as infection rates are leveling off or falling in other U.S. populations.


HIV educators and activists say there are no easy answers.

They attribute the increase to a complicated stew of issues, including racism, poverty, poor access to health care, apathy, ignorance, AIDS burnout and, in some instances, lack of personal responsibility and awareness.

Cornelius Baker, head of the Whitman -Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a service facility that works with those who are infected with HIV, believes that how people deal with certain life and societal situations have attributed to the AIDS epidemic.

"There is a sad confluence of stigma, economic status and behavior driving these rates," says Baker.

The Stew

In a city where HIV infection strikes every 1 out of 20 people, three-fourths of Whitman-Walker's clients are people of color. Fifty-six percent are Black. For many of them, poverty is the common enemy. More than 30 percent of the people who live in the District of Columbia live in poverty. Most of them are Black. Across the nation, nearly one out of four Black Americans is poor. Of all the links to HIV, this may be the most significant.

Lower income translates to a lower likelihood of having employer-based health insurance. But even middle- and upper-class Blacks are less likely to have job-based coverage. In fact, 75 percent of all uninsured individuals in the United States are minorities. Even when the uninsured enter the health care system, they are significantly less likely to receive thorough physical examinations or adequate treatment.

But historically, Blacks have put little faith in mainstream health systems.

The Tuskegee experiment that exposed Black men to syphilis and intentionally left them untreated still haunts the African American community. As a result, Blacks get to the hospital later and are therefore usually more sick than their White counterparts when they arrive. It doesn't help that many Blacks believe AIDS is a man-made virus meant to target communities of color. Mistrust of the government and unfriendly medical agencies keep many away from treatment centers.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on health care issues, studies show that Blacks tend to learn that they have HIV at a later stage of the illness than their White counterparts. By then, says Jennifer Kates, a senior program officer for HIV/AIDS policy at the foundation, they are less likely to receive treatments, such as anti-retroviral medicines and other drug combinations, known as "cocktails," used to boost healthier outcomes.

Additionally, being Black and poor in America not only means having little or no access to quality health care, it also means a lack of choices.

"When people are poor and stigmatized - as many Blacks are," says Baker, 41, "there isn't much available to them." This usually means turning to drugs and alcohol; both are

cheap, quick fixes to relieve stress. But while these things may relieve stress short term, their use also impairs judgment and increases the likelihood of drug use and unprotected sex, two common links to the transmission of AIDS.

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