Kanisha was in a longtime relationship with her high school sweetheart, when she discovered that she was HIV positive.
“I’d been hearing commercials about getting tested, so I decided to go for a check-up,” says the East Coast college student, whose name and other identifying details have been changed to protect her privacy.
That doctor’s visit proved anything but routine.
Kanisha not only learned she’d been infected with the virus that causes AIDS, she also found out her boyfriend had given her another sexually transmitted infection.
When she confronted him, the conversation was “not pretty,” she recalls. Her man insisted he didn’t know he was HIV positive, but admitted he’d had unprotected sex with a woman he met while away at school.
He apologized, but the damage was done. “I don’t see myself having another relationship for a very long time,” she says, crying softly.
This type of story is not isolated in a nation where African-Americans comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 46 percent of those living with HIV. Experts say young people are increasingly impacted.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, of the nearly 25,000 new infections estimated to occur annually among African-Americans, 38 percent — more than a third — are among young people aged 13-to-29 years old.
That rate is seven times higher than that of white males, and 11 times higher than white females in the same age group.
Young black gay/bisexual men fare even worse: they make up more than half (55 percent) of new infections among African-Americans in the 13 to 29 demographic.
“This data is devastating. There’s no ethnic group in America that’s more impacted by HIV and AIDS,” says Phill Wilson, founder/executive director of The Black AIDS Institute, a national advocacy organization in Los Angeles. “Each one of us has to be responsible for ending this in our community. If not, we have blood on our hands.”
The issue was front and center on Thursday on the campus of Clark Atlanta University. The CDC kicked-off a new HIV social media initiative simply dubbed, i know, targeting African-Americans aged 18-24. Students from historically black colleges and universities in the Atlanta area were invited, and the event was also webcast live to other HBCU campuses across the nation.
Black youth are becoming infected faster than any other segment of the African-American community, say experts, but research indicates declining concern among them about HIV.
“We’re seeing that they’re not engaging in protective behaviors,” such as consistent condom usage, or abstinence, says Robert E. Bailey II, a team leader in the CDC Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. “We really want young people to begin to talk about HIV/AIDS with their friends and families, so we can break the cycle.”
The “i know” kick-off is part of a larger, $45 million, five-year effort campaign launched by the CDC in 2009, called Act Against AIDS. More than a dozen leading African-American organizations — including the Urban League, NAACP and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network— have committed to help spread education and prevention messages.
The “i know” campaign aims to reach youth via the web, text messaging, and social networking outlets like Facebook, and Twitter. Yesterday’s event also featured the premiere of a web video with a public service announcement (PSA) starring Jamie Foxx.
WATCH THE PSA.
Meantime, Ludacris, Keri Hilson, Raheem DeVaughn, and other celebs have also committed to promoting i know on their Facebook pages and in their Twitter feeds.
CDC officials believe “i know” has the potential to reach millions of young people. Among those taking part in Thursday’s launch was Marvelyn Brown, a global HIV activist and co-author of “The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive.”
In her 2008 memoir, Brown writes of being diagnosed with HIV in 2003 at age 19. She’d had unprotected sex with her boyfriend, who she says knew he was positive but kept it secret. Ostracized in her hometown of Nashville, she thought about taking her own life.
But she fought back. Today, at 25, Brown heads her own HIV consulting company in New York City and travels the world sharing her story. She has been has widely profiled by everyone from Oprah to Newsweek.
Her work includes speaking mostly at college campuses, as well as churches and other venues. She offers straight talk about sexuality as well as HIV testing.
“Young people are craving this information,” says Brown, who takes seven pills daily and receives ongoing medical care. “I have committed my life to this. I’m trying to save lives.”