Gloria Reuben is an actress, singer, and member of the Board of SIECUS.
Throughout my career as an
actress and activist, I have learned that determination and focus are
the most valuable tools in achieving success. And yet, in our
fight against HIV/AIDS here in the U.S., we seem to have lost our collective
focus. In fact, late last year, we learned that we have 40 percent
more new infections in this country than we previously thought.
This February 7, the 9th annual National Black AIDS Awareness
Day, is the perfect time for us to recommit ourselves to defeating the
AIDS epidemic here at home, as it continues to strike some of the most
vulnerable members of our society.
The incredible increases in
the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs and expanded testing and treatment
throughout the country have, without a doubt, saved thousands upon thousands
of lives, and prevented an incredible amount of new infections.
But we cannot allow ourselves to rest on our laurels at this point.
HIV is a tenacious disease that thrives on ignorance and complacency.
Once we start thinking that we have defeated HIV here in the U.S., or
that it is only a problem in the developing world, we begin to lose
Instead, we must turn a critical
eye inward, and face the fact that HIV/AIDS has reached crisis levels
among the Black population of the U.S. The statistics are startling.
While making up 13 percent of the population, Blacks make up half of
all new HIV/AIDS cases, according to the Centers from Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC). One analysis shows that a black male in
this country has a 1 in 16 lifetime chance of acquiring HIV and for
black women it is 1 in 30. The impact of HIV is greater among
Blacks than any other racial or ethnic group, with an HIV incidence
rate that is seven times higher than Whites, and almost three times higher than
Latinos. As a country, we should be not just startled by these numbers,
we should be ashamed.
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The reasons for this severe
racial disparity are complex; certainly, a lack of community resources,
poverty, homophobia, the plight of incarceration, limited access to
health services, and education all play a part. Additionally,
the impact of racism and discrimination in this epidemic cannot be ignored.
Still, there are a number of steps we can take to begin to fight back.
We should begin by reinvesting
in the behavioral prevention programs that we know work. During
the last several years, even as the epidemic took its increasing toll
on communities of color, the federal budget for prevention actually
shrunk. We will never beat HIV/AIDS if that is the approach we
take. Instead, we need significant investment in prevention and
an end to ideological obstacles that feed the epidemic.
A good place to start in restoring
integrity to our domestic prevention efforts is in ending ineffective
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. SIECUS’ research shows
that blacks are likely disproportionately affected by these programs:
the region with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS among Blacks is in the
South which not coincidentally also receives nearly half of all federal
abstinence-only-until-marriage funds. In fact, of the top ten
states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS among blacks, all but one
are located in the South. And what do these programs do to help
stem this disease? They purposefully deny people the information
they need to protect themselves from acquiring HIV when the ideals of
abstinence and marriage fail. And they fail. Often.
But, these programs are prohibited from discussing the effectiveness
of condoms in preventing infection or discussing them in a positive
light in any way, even for young people who may be sexually active.
At the same time, we know that a comprehensive approach to sex education
works and reduces the sexual risk behaviors that lead to HIV infection
and the federal government must begin to invest in this approach.
Education is a necessary weapon
in our arsenal to defeat HIV/AIDS, but on its own is not wholly sufficient.
We must also continue to break down the old barriers that have prevented
progressive groups from joining efforts and working together.
Poverty, sex education, and HIV/AIDS organizations all have a stake
in defeating the HIV epidemic in the Black community and we must work
together if we are to be successful.
National Black AIDS Awareness
Day was established to increase awareness in the Black community on
HIV/AIDS prevention and testing, and also to decrease the stigma around
the disease. We honor that today and raise our voices to say change
is needed. Thankfully, President Obama has pledged his support
to tackle the domestic epidemic and to begin this important work through
a public-private partnership that creates a National AIDS Strategy.
Make no mistake, this important plan must address the issues of prevention
and the increasingly racial path this disease is taking.