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The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008)
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AIDS in Black America as Severe as in Africa

August 4, 2008

AIDS in Black America as Severe as in Africa
Mexico City -- The United Nations released its massive, bi-annual "Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic," recently, but you had to dig deep to find much about the HIV/AIDS crisis in America. Despite a large and growing epidemic in the United States -- a crisis that disproportionately affects African-Americans--the 350-page report barely skimmed the surface of what is going on within American borders.

And though the United States should be applauded for leading the world in global HIV/AIDS funding, it has failed to funnel adequate dollars to our national problem. The $48 billion legislation to fight AIDS and other diseases overseas that now sits on President Bush's desk -- triple the amount from 2003 -- does little for the millions who are newly infected and living with the disease in the U.S.

"More Black Americans are infected with HIV than the total populations of people living with HIV in seven of the 15 countries served by PEPFAR," noted Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, referring to what is known widely as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

According to the UN report, around the world, an estimated 33 million people were living with HIV in 2007, and 2.7 million people were newly infected with the virus. Overall, 2 million people died of AIDS in 2007. The report notes that while the percentage of people living with HIV has stabilized since 2000, the overall number of people living with HIV has increased steadily as new infections occur each year and HIV treatments extend life.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the hardest hit. Two-thirds of people living with HIV reside in this region and three quarters of all AIDS deaths occurred there. The prevalence rate, a revealing statistic which compares the number of people living with the disease with the number of residents of the area, is also highest in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, the rate is 5 percent, which means one in 20 people is infected with HIV. And in seven of those countries, that rate was even higher. In Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe three out of every 20 people are infected.

The Caribbean has the second highest prevalence rate. In that region, one out of every 100 people is infected with HIV. Of the estimated 230,000 people living with HIV in the Caribbean, three fourths of them reside in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The report summarized the epidemic in the United States in two pages. It didn't give North America its own section; the continent was combined with Western and Central Europe. Two million people living with HIV reside in North America, Western and Central Europe; 1.2 million of them in the U.S.

That fails to paint a complete picture of what's really going. Though the raw numbers are lower here, the impact is great. In fact, according to "Left Behind! Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic," a Black AIDS Institute report issued on the same day as the UN document, if Black America were its own country, it would constitute the world's 35th most populous nation, but would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with HIV.

Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, only four countries -- and only two in the Western Hemisphere -- have adult HIV prevalence as high as the conservative estimate (2 percent among adults) for Black America. In other words, 1 in 50 African-American adults is living with HIV here. A recent report estimated that in Washington, D.C., which is 60 percent Black, one in 20 city residents is infected with the disease.

"U.S. policy treats AIDS as a foreign policy priority, but virtually ignores the epidemic among Black citizens here at home," said Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and CEO of the National Action Network (NAN). "U.S. policymakers seem to be much more interested in the epidemic in Botswana than the epidemic in Louisiana. This is an unnecessary and deadly choice. Both need urgent attention."

Other highlights from the UN report:

  • Globally, the percentage of women among people living with HIV has remained stable at 50 percent for several years, although women's share of infections is increasing in several countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 60 percent of people living with HIV are women. According to U.S. government statistics, African-American women are 23 times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with AIDS, and the disease remains the leading cause of death among Black women between 25-34 years.

  • Young people aged 15-24 account for an estimated 45 percent of new HIV infections worldwide. In the U.S., Blacks make up 70 percent of new HIV diagnoses among teenagers and 65 percent of HIV-infected newborns.

  • Though HIV creates a heavy burden on low-income communities, it is not just a disease of poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, HIV prevalence is highest not in the poorest countries, but in two of the wealthiest, South Africa and Botswana. In Botswana, nearly one out of every four people is living with the virus.

In the end, UNAIDS did its best to put a positive spin on its report. "We've achieved more in the last two years than in the preceding 20," UNAIDS director Peter Piot said last week. "We need now to continue these efforts more than ever."

Linda Villarosa, a former New York Times reporter and editor of Essence Magazine, is a freelance writer.

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This article was provided by Black AIDS Institute. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
AIDS 2008 Newsroom

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