“Together...We Can Make HIV Black History!” C. Virginia Fields President and CEO of Black Health
National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), February 7, offers an opportunity to look at what we have accomplished, and—to work harder at implementing all the solutions and supports we’ve mostly talked about, and researched, and proposed over the years . This year, in commemoration of NBHAAD, the National Black Leadership Commission on Health, Inc. (Black Health), celebrates 36 years and revisits the presence of HIV/AIDS in our communities.
The status of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is not a bleak one. Much like the great leaps we’ve made in treatment, we’ve seen a steady decline – from time to time – in the number of new cases. There have been more eyes dedicated to researching cures, and solutions, and many people continue to work on the ground, across the country, in HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, diagnosis, and treatment. Many of these committed people, particularly those who’ve been doing this work for decades, will tell you that the changes in the number of deaths, and the severity of illness we once saw, are remarkable. So many people are living with HIV/AIDS, and doing so with joy, with pleasure, with good health. Advances made in vaccine technology—energized by the COVID-19 pandemic—are once again leading to exciting possibilities for HIV/AIDS treatment.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has eroded some of our gains in this work. Testing decreased, and by extension our ability to diagnose new cases in a timely manner. Our community-based organizations and other allies were deprioritized in the race to address the new health equities that arose in the last three years—and due to a false sense of security, and perhaps even some conservatism, HIV/AIDS awareness and education stopped reaching those who most need it— including our youth.
Even before these downward trends however, Black/African American people account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people with HIV, compared to other races and ethnicities. The Southern States have continued to see disproportionately high rates of new HIV/AIDS cases. Barriers to accessing treatment, and consistent care, deepen the reverberances of these cases, and the risks of new infections occurring. Socio-economic inequities, inadequate transportation infrastructure, bias and stigma, and just plain-old-fashioned racism have tipped the scale further.
Turning from geography to gender, in another less talked about demographic, HIV/AIDS is harming Black/African American women—despite Black women being a lower proportion of overall HIV/AIDS cases. For transgender women, this burden is further disproportionate. A lack of consistently safe access to resources has been compounded by the spate of anti-transgender legislation —and where the law is not harming, bias and domestic violence are. Black, and/or queer men are an important, rightly prioritized population in this epidemic—but let’s not forget our sisters, and our siblings.
So, what can we do to recover our lost ground, and keep pushing HIV/AIDS diagnosis, treatment, and care along. Government must re-affirm its commitment to specialty care for HIV/AIDS and continue to fund community-based organizations. Increase access to PrEP in FQHC, City and State colleges/universities. Prioritize the public health agenda and mandate sexual health education in public schools. Elected officials must take actions to ensure that housing insecurity, food insecurity, inconsistent transportation, income disparities, other social and political determinants, are addressed in tandem with HIV/AIDS—these injuries of inequality influence so many health outcomes. End policies that increase the chances of people becoming HIV positive.
To reach the goal of Ending the Epidemic, government and pharmaceuticals working together must make the same commitment, determination, consistency, and allocation of resources to produce a vaccine – as was done – to produce COVID vaccines!
Article contributors, Melissa Baker, COO and Kadeen Waldron, MPH Intern, SUNY Downstate