A broad coalition of African American leaders, increasingly alarmed by the disproportionate rates of HIV infection among blacks in the United States, on Monday called for an urgent campaign to increase testing and general AIDS awareness in their communities.
“Now is the time for us to face the fact that AIDS has become a black disease,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. “It has invaded our house, and our leaders must accept ownership and fight it with everything we have.”
Bond, appearing here at the 16th International AIDS Conference, said African Americans should seek out HIV testing so they can learn whether they are harboring the virus. As a part of the latest campaign, he recently took a test himself. “Knowing your HIV status and the status of your partner can save your life,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contends that at least 25 percent of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV are not aware of it — a major reason why an estimated 40,000 people in the United States are newly infected each year.
African Americans are bearing the brunt of new infections. Blacks represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, but African American women accounted for 67 percent of new U.S. AIDS diagnoses in 2004, according to Jennifer Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation. AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women in the United States ages 25 to 44.
Although 17 percent of the U.S. teen population is black, African Americans accounted for 70 percent of HIV infections among that age group in 2004.
It can take 10 years or longer from infection with HIV before the disease progresses to AIDS, and patients generally fare better if they begin treatment earlier in the course of their infection.
Wilson, a gay black man who has been living with HIV for 25 years, said that amid an AIDS crisis in the black community, every African American should find out his or her HIV status. He organized the meeting of black leaders at the conference, where they signed the pledge that recognizes that “the AIDS story in America is mostly one of a failure to lead.”
The pledge calls for reducing HIV rates among African Americans over the next five years, increasing the percentage of blacks who are tested, and increasing access to care and treatment for those infected with the virus.
Although he was not on hand at a news conference, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also lent his support to Wilson’s initiative. In remarks prepared for the conference, he said, “AIDS has been allowed to stalk and murder Black America like a serial killer because we have been a compliant victim, submitting through inaction.
“It is now time for us to fight AIDS like the major civil rights issue it is,” he said.