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Needed: More AIDS outreach in the African-American community

DR. MICHAEL A. LENOIR | 2/13/2014, 12:04 p.m.
HIV has disproportionately affected Black Americans since the beginning of the epidemic, and this disparity continues.
HIV ribbon

Dr. Anthony Jones has been an AIDS specialist for over 15 years. During that time, he has become more and more discouraged as he has watched the AIDS epidemic in the San Francisco Bay Area become increasingly more of a problem for the African-American community.

“We’re really at a crossroads with HIV in the Black community,” lamented Jones. “We have the knowledge and the tools to dramatically impact the spread of HIV and extremely effective medications that can fully suppress the virus. People can have a normal life expectancy. But a lack of understanding about perceived risk, lack of access to care, fear and stigma are some of the greatest barriers to improving outcomes among my patients with HIV disease.”

The statistics support Jones’ perception of the disease. HIV has disproportionately affected Black Americans since the beginning of the epidemic, and this disparity continues. Today, there are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, including more than 510,004 Black Americans. Although Black Americans represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of the new HIV infections in 2010, an estimated 44 percent of the total people living with HIV in the U.S. The rate of new HIV infections was nearly eight times that of whites and more than twice that of Latinos in 2010. The rate for Black men was the highest of any group, more than twice that of Latino men.

African-American communities continue to experience higher rates of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compared with other racial/ethnic communities in the United States. Having an STI can significantly increase the chance of getting or transmitting HIV.

The AIDS epidemic has had its most significant impact on Black women. Black women have the third highest rate overall and the highest rate of HIV infection among women. Black women account for the largest share of new HIV infections, and the incidence rate is 20 times the rate among white women.

Jones, like other experts, believes that more needs to be done to reach out to the African-American community, especially young gay Black men. He believes, as do most physicians and experts in the field treating AIDS, that outreach efforts have decreased significantly since the pattern of infection has increasingly involved the African-American community. More than 25 percent of Blacks aged 18 to 64 have never been tested for HIV. About one in five Blacks living with HIV do not know they are infected. Diagnosis late in the course of HIV infection is common, which results in missed opportunities to get early medical care and prevent transmission to others.

The National Medical Association, along with its physician members, is committed to changing the conversation around HIV within the Black community. As African-Americans, we must do more to reduce the impact that this disease has on our community. The message must be that while treatment options have improved the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS, we still need to be diligent with safe sex, regular testing and aggressive treatment when a diagnosis is made.

HIV prevention projects for community-based organizations to provide effective HIV prevention services to gay, bisexual and transgender youth of color and their partners must be expanded. Support and technical assistance to health departments and community-based organizations to deliver effective prevention interventions for African-Americans should be encouraged. Our community must work together to create an environment where living comfortably with AIDS is better than any alternative.

Founded in 1895, the National Medical Association is the nation’s oldest and largest medical association representing the interests of more than 35,000 African-American physicians and their patients. It repeatedly advocates for policies that would assure equitable and quality health care for all people.

Dr. Michael A. LeNoir is the current president of the National Medical Association, assuming the post in June 2013. LeNoir is one of the top clinical allergists and pediatricians practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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