Countdown to the International AIDS Conference, Part 2
By Phil Wilson
(This is the second in a three-part series on why the International AIDS Conference should matter to Black people. Part 1 described what the International AIDS Conference is. On the eve of the conference, we’ll look at what Black people need to do to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America and how the International AIDS Conference will help us do that.)
We’re less than two weeks away from the opening ceremony of the 19th International AIDS Conference. And to explain why the conference is important to Black people, I will paraphrase a statement that a Nobel laureate once made: Everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since apparently no one was listening, it’s worth saying again.
Some of the phrases that HIV/AIDS activists have applied to Black communities help to explain why Black people must care about the International AIDS Conference:
• Today AIDS in America is a Black disease.
• Our house is on fire.
• If Black America were its own country, its AIDS epidemic would rival the epidemics of some sub-Saharan African countries.
• We have been left behind in the fight against HIV AIDS.
Pick a phrase – it doesn’t matter which one – because no matter which slogan speaks to you and no matter how you look at it: in 2012, as in 2008, as in 2000, as (even though we did not know it) in 1982, Black people bear the brunt of AIDS in America. This is as true today as it was in the very beginning of the epidemic.
But a big difference exists between then and now: Even with the advances in surveillance, prevention, testing and treatment that have occurred over the past few years, the racial disparities that exist in HIV/AIDS grow greater by the day.
One of the driving forces behind the widening gap is the fact that both the United States and the world are making progress, but Black people are not progressing to the same degree that others are. In an era where the advancements now allow leaders to envision an AIDS-free generation as well as the end of the epidemic, this International AIDS Conference provides Black people with the opportunity to jumpstart our efforts to catch up.
When you look at the AIDS epidemic from the lens of gender, Black women are disproportionately impacted by HIV. They are being infected at higher levels, diagnosed at later stages in the disease and have poorer outcomes than White women. At a conference in which we’re going to talk about female-controlled protection, it is imperative that Black women take part in the conversation and that what we learn travels back to our mothers, sisters, daughters and nieces.
Black gay men are the single most at-risk population on the planet. At the conference we’re going to discuss topics such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the ability to protect yourself from HIV infection by taking anti-HIV drugs that historically have been given only to people who already have HIV. Thus far, gay men are the only population for whom we know without a doubt that PrEP works. So if we’re going to talk about PrEP, Black gay men have to be in the room. And we need to figure out how to take messages about PrEP back to Black gay men in the rural South, the urban North, the industrial Midwest and the far West.
The average age of people becoming newly infected is getting younger every day. Black young people are particularly at risk. At a conference that emphasizes organizing youth, we can mobilize a new generation and help to ensure that Black young people are among the members of the AIDS-free generation that experts now have in their sights.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved an at-home HIV test. This new tool will improve early diagnosis of HIV. Too many Black people find out that they’re infected with HIV less than full year before being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Early detection allows people to find out their status years earlier – in time to benefit from the lifesaving treatments that now exist, improve the quality of their life and reduce the chances that they’ll unintentionally infect others.
But the tool will only work for those who understand how to work the tool. Knowing your HIV status alone is not enough; people with HIV need care and treatment. Testing people without linking them to care, testing people who don’t have access to care, and testing people who don’t use the care that’s available doesn’t get us to the end game. During this conference we’re going to talk about the relationship between HIV testing, linkage to care and HIV prevention. Once again, the Black community will not benefit unless we are on hand.
We have a long way to go and many challenges to overcome to end AIDS in Black America. But we can overcome those challenges if we arm ourselves properly. Now is the time and the International AIDS Conference is the place to obtain the resources we need to join the battle to end this disease in our communities.
I hope to see you in Washington, D.C. Together we’re greater than AIDS.
Phill Wilson is the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute (www.BlackAIDS.org), the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. For more information or to interview Phill Wilson, contact Sarah Smedley at 212-786-4950 or follow him on twitter @iamphillwilson.