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Black HIV/AIDS Activists Draw Attention to the Industrialized World: Part 1

By Cindy George

February 23, 2011

The International AIDS Society has scheduled the next International AIDS Conference for July 22-27, 2012, in Washington, D.C. It will be the meeting's first stop in the United States since the 1990 gathering, held in San Francisco. This is the first in an occasional series about conference preparations. Part 1 of this two-part story covers the conference's potential to draw attention to the epidemic among Black people living in industrialized nations.

An oft-heard message from many Black HIV/AIDS activists points to something just as obvious, though far less glaring, than Kanye West's statement about President George W. Bush during the post-Hurricane Katrina survival crisis: The global HIV/AIDS professional elite don't care about Black people.

The HIV crisis among Black people in developed nations will gain a global platform next year, when Washington, D.C., hosts the 2012 International AIDS Conference (IAC). As the premier international gathering for people working in the field of HIV/AIDS as well as for policymakers, those living with the virus and others committed to ending the epidemic, the IAC is expected to attract more than 25,000 delegates from 200 countries. During the six-day event, AIDS advocates from around the world will share their expertise and shape a global response to the HIV pandemic. Black activists from several nations intend to involve themselves deeply in crafting that strategy.

While most of the world's attention focuses on AIDS in developing countries, most of the industrialized nations populated by the Diaspora are experiencing epidemics of their own. Our nation's capitol is home to the highest HIV-infection rate in the United States. The fact that most of the city's residents are Black reflects the reality that the virus is also surging among people of African descent in countries such as Australia and Canada, as well as in European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany. In many developed nations, factors such as poverty; the lack of jobs, education and housing; and stigma and marginalization help drive the epidemic.

National HIV leaders hope that the Washington location will help draw attention to the issues faced by HIV-positive Black people outside of Africa or the Caribbean, a subject that critics say has previously received little attention.

Plainly: Governments throughout the Diaspora push the "Black issue" under the rug, Black activists say, ignoring the population that's fueling the HIV fire in the global north.

Washington's HIV epidemic mirrors the situation in some of the profoundly stricken countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But many Americans -- and much of the rest of the world -- remain unaware of the epidemic's magnitude in the U.S. and developed world because the AIDS story that's most often told centers on the developing world.

"We want to make sure these [developed-nation] stories are told," says Frank J. Oldham Jr., president and CEO of the National Association of People with AIDS, one of the Washington-area organizations preparing for the conference. All around the world, including in the United States, wherever an HIV/AIDS epidemic exists, "It's about access ... HIV and AIDS deaths and AIDS itself are the end results of other social deficits and health disparities," he says.

The conference will occur exactly two years after the nation unveiled its first HIV/AIDS strategy, rolled out by its first Black president, whose landmark health-reform legislation should improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS. The Obama administration also lifted the ban prohibiting people who are HIV positive from traveling to the United States, and helped ensure that once-jeopardized Ryan White Care Act funding for HIV-positive people who are uninsured or underinsured was extended during the height of the recession's budget crisis.

Oldham says he is "very optimistic" that the conference will make its international audience aware of what is happening with HIV and Black people in developed countries and particularly in Washington. "If we can change the trajectory of the epidemic here, we can then change the epidemic in Watts, Detroit and Mississippi," he says.

Cindy George is a health reporter at the Houston Chronicle who also writes freelance articles; she can be reached at cgeorge304@aol.com.




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