Who is the face of HIV in the United States? Is it Magic Johnson? Is it men who have sex with men? Is it Charlie Sheen? These are the available figures and profiles the public may associate with HIV, but having spent 10 years analyzing HIV demographic data, I know that the ‘face of HIV’ looks like mine.
According to the CDC, African-American women make up 64% of new estimated HIV infections among women, compared to 18% in white women and 15% in Hispanic/Latina women. In general, African-Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV. The CDC reports that the rate of new HIV infections in African Americans is 8 times that of whites based on population size, and while we only make up 12% of the population, we make up 46% of diagnoses of HIV infection [shown in chart below].
Blacks also carry the burden geographically; the CDC reports that in 2009, the number of adults and adolescents living with an AIDS diagnosis was highest in the South, and in 2010 blacks accounted for the largest proportion of AIDS diagnoses in the South, the Northeast, and the Midwest.
These are the statistics that make the recent public discussion surrounding HIV in light of Charlie Sheen’s disclosure extremely irritating. Somehow, in 2015—34 years into the epidemic and 27 years since the first World AIDS day—misinformation about HIV, its causes and treatment, is still widely perpetuated. I can’t even get through my favorite morning shows–The Breakfast Club and The Ricky Smiley Morning Show—without hearing myths, and blatant untruths, including “People like Magic Johnson and Charlie Sheen have the money to pay for a more effective HIV drug cocktail.” NO THEY DON’T! There are millions of people living with HIV worldwide adhering to their medications who have an undetectable viral load as well.
This World AIDS Day, let’s cut through the myths so we can focus on the important question: what can we do to lower HIV rates in the black community?
- We can be routinely tested for STIs and HIV (FYI: just because you go to the doctor/hospital/clinic and request to be tested for STIs and HIV, it doesn’t mean they automatically test you for everything. In many cases you must ask to ensure you are tested for STIs, such as herpes)
- We can educate ourselves and inform others about HIV and AIDS, especially about how HIV is actually transmitted (for example, if you use a fork after someone who is HIV positive, you are not susceptible to contracting the virus)
- We can stop judging, bashing, and discriminating against those who are gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with other men in the name of God.
- We can stop stigmatizing HIV as a death sentence; today people living with HIV who are adherent to the medications are living long and healthy lives.
- We can stop assuming that only those whom we classify as “promiscuous” are susceptible to HIV.
- We should demand that our children receive comprehensive, medically accurate, and age appropriate sex education in school.
- We can take care of our health in general and take more accountability for teaching younger generations to do the same.
- And lastly, we must have the conversation! Right after we discuss the craziness on last night’s episode of Empire, our shock about what happened on the Real Housewives of Atlanta, and our speculation about what Shonda is going to do next on How to Get Away with Murder; we must talk about us and the issues affecting our community!