Race still matters in the fight against HIV/AIDS

OPINION - The false message that 'only poor people' become HIV positive could encourage middle class black men and women to engage in high-risk behavior...

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VIENNA, AUSTRIA – If there’s one buzzword that’s gaining traction at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, it’s poverty. Reports and speeches presented at AIDS 2010 emphasized the massive global economic cost of the epidemic—from former President Bill Clinton’s opening remarks to reports on the recession’s impact on global HIV/AIDS funding.

Another report presented at AIDS 2010 also emphasized poverty and the resulting media spin could potentially have a major impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS in the African-American community: A first-of-its-kind analysis by the Centers for Disease Control that shows 2.1 percent of heterosexuals living in high-poverty urban areas are HIV positive.

That’s a heck of a statistic. The United States overall HIV rate is only about .60. But the 2.1 percent rate in high poverty areas confirms what that the Black AIDS Institute and many HIV/AIDS activists have said for many years: There is an HIV epidemic in our inner cities. The HIV rates are comparable to Belize, Ethiopia and Angola, according to the CIA World Factbook. Infection rates are much higher among Black people. Astronomically higher.

Blacks represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent of all people living with HIV.

Almost immediately after the study’s Monday release, the media spin was that “race doesn’t matter” in the American fight against AIDS. The Associated Press led the (fact-check-challenged) reporting with “In U.S. Cities, HIV Linked More to Poverty Than Race” and concluded, “Federal scientists found that race was not a factor — there were no significant differences between blacks, whites or Hispanics.”

But race does matter in the fight against HIV/AIDS—and poverty matters, too.

One of the reasons why African-Americans are so disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS—and make no mistake, the epidemic in the States is mostly a black disease—is because we are more likely to experience poverty and less access to health care and prevention. Poverty impacts at least 9 out of 10 blacks at some point during their lifetime…but half as many whites.

Only days before the conference opened, the Obama administration unveiled the National HIV/AIDS Strategy which promised to “concentrate HIV prevention efforts at the highest-risk population”, which include African-Americans and “men who have sex with men,” or MSM, in public health jargon. HIV rates are even more astronomical among younger black gay and bisexual men.

The study was unveiled in Vienna on the same day that top Obama officials were debriefed black journalists on the Strategy. The Black AIDS Institute and a number of black health professionals at AIDS 2010 slammed the reporting and questioned the CDC’s conclusions.

“No comment,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told veteran Black health journalist Glenn Ellis at a press conference. On Tuesday night, Fauci walked through the AIDS 2010 Media Centre and again avoided Ellis’ questions.

It’s all about messaging. The HIV epidemic is already slamming the African-American community. The false message that “only poor people” become HIV positive could encourage middle class black men and women to engage in high-risk behavior.

That’s especially critical given a fascinating presentation on Tuesday at AIDS 2010 by Dr. Robin Stanback Stevens of University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. For her dissertation, Stevens surveyed network and local television news coverage from 1993 to 2007 and found blacks “exhibiting greater declines in HIV testing in response to news coverage than Whites.” The more we hear and read about HIV/AIDS, the less many of us are getting tested. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Does poverty matter? Of course,” says Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “But to pretend that race is not a huge factor in who is poor in America is naïve at best and maliciously racist at worst. The fact that virtually every black American will experience poverty at some point during their adulthood speaks volumes about AIDS in America,” “Poor people get AIDS. Black people are poor.”