Just over 7 percent of Oklahomans are black, but black residents have accounted for about 21 percent of the approximately 8,500 HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the state since the 1980s. Oklahoma logged 300 new HIV diagnoses in 2010; the rate among blacks translated to 38.6 cases per 100,000 population, compared with 5.4 for whites, 7.2 for Hispanics, and 6.8 for Native Americans, state Department of Health (DOH) data show.
Many black residents do not have access to health care or do not make testing a priority, said Amani Smiley, HIV/AIDS prevention training specialist for the state Department of Health. Often, black individuals do not test for HIV until they are symptomatic, ill or already have AIDS, she said.
"This makes them more likely to die from AIDS because they don't get tested until later on in their illness," and it also increases their chance of transmitting the virus, Smiley said. Earlier diagnosis and treatment can offer patients better outcomes as well as help prevent onward transmissions.
Smiley said her work focuses on the importance of testing and fighting misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. "There are a lot of myths out there," she said. "And there is also a lot of denial."
"It's beyond AIDS awareness. It's about changing lives," said Roger Nealy, a barber at Hopkins Haircare in Midwest City. In early February, the shop hosted free HIV screenings as part of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Some people believe they do not need to test for HIV if they are married or in a committed relationship, said Nina Johnson, prevention coordinator with Guiding Right in Midwest City. "You truly never know what someone's sexual history is but your own," she said. "The goal is to educate, test, and treat."