It was the summer of 1982. AIDS was quickly becoming the scourge of the gay community. It was a time of ignorance, mass panic and fear. Government, faith leaders and too often, family members turned their back on the affected individuals.
The first person I knew diagnosed with GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was my college buddy Lorraine. Not the "face" of AIDS at that time, Lorraine was a black heterosexual woman. There was no treatment, no hope and about three months post her diagnosis, Lorraine died.
Much has transpired since 1983. Medical advancements have transformed HIV/AIDS from an almost always fatal disease, to a challenging but manageable diagnosis. We even dare to dream, to articulate the vision of an AIDS-free generation. As we approach National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), I pose the question if this vision is a possibility -- especially in the black community.
Black Americans constitute 13% of the United States population but represent 50% of the new HIV/AIDS cases. The rate of new infections among blacks is close to seven times the rate among whites. Black women account for over two-thirds of the new AIDS cases among women. Black gay and bisexual men are 55 to 75 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than heterosexual men. Compared with whites, blacks also experience higher rates of HIV mortality.
These are sobering facts that are confounded by social determinants such as racism, poverty, homophobia, gender bias and stigma. Nonetheless I am persuaded that an AIDS-free goal is not only within our reach as a public health goal -- but a compelling moral goalpost. This is especially true given the HIV/AIDS challenges faced by the black community.
Oddly enough, the first step to achieving this vision is in fact the very premise upon which NBHAAD is built. Everyone should be knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS in general and should know their own HIV status. The National HIV/AIDS Strategy goal to increase and speed connection to care must be adopted as a national public health mandate. All HIV-positive persons should have access to medical, social and community support. Homophobia and gender bias must be confronted as progenitors of HIV infection. This can only be achieved if all segments of society partner together.
Unlike 1983, we now have the science and technology to reverse the tide. While 30 years too late for my friend, Lorraine, achieving an AIDS-free generation is most definitely a possibility. For many years NBHAAD has been for me a day of interesting awareness events, inspiring speeches and of course, many new HIV tests. All important and all good ... but what does NBHAAD mean to me this year?
Let's make 2014 a year of activism, a year of commitment and a year of hope. It can be the year we really pave the road to an AIDS-free generation.
Marjorie J. Hill, Ph.D., is on the AIDS United board of directors.