The Shocking Truth about the Aids Epidemic in Black America

By Whitaker, Charles | Ebony, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Shocking Truth about the Aids Epidemic in Black America


Whitaker, Charles, Ebony


With African-Americans making up 50 percent of al new infections, HIV/AIDS is increasingly becoming a "Black disease"

It is the health crisis that Black America has yet to fully comprehend and come to grips with. Festering beneath a shroud of secrecy and facilitated by a complex web of lies, shame and misinformation, it is an epidemic that is placing whole communities in jeopardy. Even in the face of tremendous advances in detection and treatment, even with the mountains of information disseminated about protection and prevention, the spread of HIV/AIDS has become a public health emergency among African-Americans, one that has radically altered the profile of the disease's "typical" victims.

Long considered a disease that primary affected gay White men, the face of AIDS has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the epidemic was first detected. In the early to mid-1980s when the AIDS crisis first swept through the nation, more than 60 percent of the 200,000 new HIV infections reported each year were in White men. The gay community mobilized, however, promoting condom use and early detection to combat the spread of the disease. Their efforts have been quite successful.

Today, new HIV infections are down to 40,000 a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report 2000. But what is alarming is where those new infections are concentrated: More than 50 percent occur in African-Americans. In fact, a quick glance at the CDC tables makes it apparent that HIV/AIDS has increasingly become a "Black disease."

Consider these statistics: For Blacks age 25-44, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death in 1998. Black women account for about 64 percent of AIDS cases reported among women. Black children under the age of 13 represent almost two-thirds of all reported pediatric HIV cases in the United States. Add to this the devastating effect that HIV/AIDS is having on the continent of Africa, where two-thirds of the world's HIV infections currently exist and 17 million people died of complications from AIDS last year, and you have a disease that has taken on a decidedly Black and brown hue.

"What we are seeing is that this epidemic is settling among the most vulnerable among us," says U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. "It has a lot to do with access to information, but also with the resources--socioeconomic resources and psychological resources--that one needs to combat the disease and change behavior."

While it is true that the AIDS epidemic in Black America has deep pockets in poorer urban and rural communities, many say the crisis is so widespread that it defies easy explanation and categorization. "It would be foolish to think that this disease is in one place or fits one kind of person," says Dr. Robert Scott, an Oakland, Calif., physician who sees more than 400 AIDS patients in his practice.

In Alameda County, where Dr. Scott's practice is based, African-Americans constitute 60 percent of the reported AIDS cases, a figure so staggering that county officials declared a state of emergency to address the issue. "This is a disease of young folks and old folks, of poor folks and middle-class folks," says Dr. Scott. "So anyone who thinks they're safe needs to think again. If you're sexually active, you're at risk."

Some blame intravenous drug use and the clandestine escapades of "double-dipping" bisexual men for the disproportionately high incidence of HIV infections in the Black community, particularly among Black women. The sharing of dirty needles does account for up to 35 percent of the nation's HIV infections, according to the CDC. And HIV-infected men who have unprotected sex with both men and women have certainly helped spread the disease.

Similarly there is a complex tangle of relationships that can often make charting HIV infection in the Black community difficult. "The Black AIDS problem presents all these new considerations that you just didn't see when people considered it basically a gay, White male disease," says LeRoy Whitfield, a senior editor at POZ, a magazine for people infected with HIV/AIDS. …

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