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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Community in crisis

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The human immunodeficiency virus, which causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome otherwise known as HIV/AIDS continues to claim the lives of thousands each year.

Time and advancements in treatments are helping the infected live longer, healthier lives but HIV/AIDS is exterminating the Black community at alarming rates. Heterosexual Black women in particular, have become the new face of HIV/AIDS, not the previously stereotyped homosexual white male.

“As a care coordinator here, I had grandmothers, kids infected through perionatal transmission and gay men in every color of every person imaginable. It’s not who you are, but the activity that puts you at risk,” said Kerrie Kikendall, interim director of programs for the Damien Center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the number of HIV cases overall are increasing with an estimated 54,230 new cases. What’s concerning is the harsh reality of new infections – Blacks incurred the highest number of infections based on rate.

Of those 54,230 cases, Blacks made up 10,130. Although whites made up over 13,000 cases, Blacks represented 115 cases per 1,000 of the population.

Additionally, Blacks only account for approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet African-Americans make up over 46 percent of the over 1 million people estimated to be living with HIV.

“One in 16 Black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lifetime as will one in 30 Black women. That’s a high rate,” said Dr. Virginia A. Caine, director of the Marion County Health Department and infectious disease physician, Indiana University School of Medicine.

AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between 25 and 34 and the second leading cause of death among Black men age 35 to 44. In short, Blacks are a smaller part of the entire population, but are contracting HIV/AIDS faster than any other racial group.

In the United States, Indiana ranks 25 in the number of persons infected with HIV/AIDS.

Andrea Perez, Communities of Color Prevention Program manager, Indiana State Dept. of Health adds that among women, Black women exceed white women by a larger percentage than white men exceed Black men.

The numbers may be alarming, but finding the root of the problem goes even deeper. Perez states experts cannot pinpoint reasons behind spikes in HIV/AIDS cases for Blacks but Caine points to Blacks’ social networks.

“People assume because Blacks have a higher rate of HIV is because we’re more promiscuous. If you look at the data, that is not the case,” said Caine. “Because of lack of access to healthcare and health illiteracy we have a higher rate of infections. We don’t always go in and get ourselves screened even though we have a problem.”

“We also don’t speak about the African-American man on the down low,” adds Melissa Pershing, executive director of the Damien Center.

Due to advancements in HIV/AIDS medications experts say people are also less afraid of the past horrors of the disease and more comfortable with the idea of knowing AIDS won’t immediately take their life. Many believe “I’ll just take this pill and be OK.”

The youth is a major segment of the population that is unaware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Adolescents of today have not experienced the AIDS scare of the 80s and 90s and are ignorant to the repugnance and severity HIV/AIDS had in its early period.

Ten years ago, it was estimated that one half of the new HIV infections occurred in people ages 13 to 25. In 2000, nearly 60 percent of AIDS are reported in people ages 30 to 44. While teens aren’t leading in HIV cases, they account for about a third of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases in the U.S. Having an STD makes it easier to acquire the HIV infection.

“They are just an incredibly difficult population to tap into. We may not have access to them through the schools and getting a teen to come, sit down and listen to someone talk about HIV/AIDS is not a big draw,” said Perez. “There is a requirement that something be taught about HIV/AIDS in school, but there are no guidelines currently as to what needs to be taught and how it’s taught.”

In addition to the difficulty of reaching teens regarding the dangers of HIV/AIDS, Pershing states senior citizens over age 50 are gaining speed among HIV/AIDS cases.

Every nine and a half minutes, someone is becoming infected with HIV. Communities are in crisis stemming from HIV/AIDS cases. Some believe it takes continued awareness and education in credible Black institutions while others believe it’s going to take an overall holistic behavior change and addressing issues that lead to people making the decisions that put them at risk.

Most importantly people should be tested annually and know the HIV/AIDS status of their sexual partners to stop the spread of the disease or get useful, life prolonging treatment. HIV/AIDS can be prevented.

“If you get the test, you will be relieved of that anxiety and you can start fresh. If you’re HIV positive, you’re going to find out at some point and you may have unknowingly infected a lot of people,” said Caine. “Look at the example of Magic Johnson. How long ago was he diagnosed? He was diagnosed early and took care of himself. You may be literally saving your life.”

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