July 23, 2012
In 1981 gay men across the country became ill with a mysterious disease that puzzled doctors. Phill Wilson's physician noticed his swollen lymph nodes like other gay men in the nation. That was Wilson's introduction to HIV/AIDS.
Wilson's HIV/AIDS diagnosis transformed into activism. A 1986 Los Angeles proposal to quarantine people with HIV pushed him into action. Wilson helped organize the first AIDS hotline for AIDS Project Los Angeles and was part of the first AIDS candlelight vigil in that city.
Throughout the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, White men were the face of diagnosis, activism and treatment for HIV and AIDS in the news.
But Phill Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute, a community partner of the 19th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), was always there in the center of the epidemic, raising his voice for Black people.
"It became clear that this was going to be a major health issue at that time among gay and bisexual men," Wilson says. "Little did we know that this disease would turn in to be the health catastrophe of our generation."
Wilson, a co-founder of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, is still in the heart of the battle to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS among Black people in the United States.
Today he stands on the global stage as a plenary speaker at the International AIDS Conference where he will focus the world's attention on the AIDS epidemic in Black America.
"Today in America AIDS is a Black disease," he says. "Black America represents 10 to 12 percent of the population and yet we're nearly 50 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. We're around 50 percent of the new cases and we're around 50 percent of the annual AIDS related deaths."
But Wilson believes we've reached a deciding moment. Several recent actions will help turn the tide of Black HIV/AIDS rates in the United States, he says. The National AIDS Strategy addresses racial disparities in the epidemic; the Affordable Care Act erases health insurance barriers for people with pre-existing conditions and allows young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance, among other benefits, and new biomedical breakthroughs such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can protect the uninfected against acquiring HIV.
But there is still a lot of work to do, Wilson says, and Black America has to make up for time during the 15 or so years that much of America believed that HIV/AIDS was a gay white male disease.
"I fundamentally believe that the virus won't be eradicated but the epidemic will be over in 10 years if we act now," Wilson says. "If we don't act now we will have the same problems, probably greater problems 10 years from now than we have now."
It is imperative for the nation to make AIDS prevention and treatment strategies for African Americans a priority, Wilson says, if it is serious about ending the epidemic. "If we fail at ending the AIDS epidemic in Black America we fail at ending the AIDS epidemic in America."
Sherri Williams is a freelance journalist and social-media editor.