World Aids Day and HIV in the Black Community

Thursday is World AIDS Day. According to a recent government report, the rate of newly reported HIV cases among African Americans is dropping — but blacks are still eight times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with the AIDS virus. Ed Gordon discusses the findings with Brenda Wilson.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. The day will also mark the 17th observance of the pandemic that began a quarter-century ago. Since then, more than 60 people around the globe have been infected with HIV and more than 20 million have died, according to the World Health Organization. Here in the United States, the rate of newly reported HIV cases among African-Americans is reportedly dropping, but a new government report finds that blacks are still eight times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with the AIDS virus. Joining us from our headquarters in Washington, DC, is NPR science correspondent and editor Brenda Wilson.

Brenda, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

BRENDA WILSON reporting:

Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: While we should take, I suspect, some encouragement from the idea that over the course of the last three years we've seen a 5 percent drop a year in newly reported HIV cases within the black community, it is still hugely problematic when we think it's more than eight times likely that an African-American will contract this disease than the white. Why do we see this kind of disparity?

WILSON: Well, first of all, you have a higher prevalence within that community, meaning that there's much more of a likelihood that people are going to be exposed to it. You also have people who are unaware that they are HIV-infected. A study that was done earlier this year looking just primarily at men who have sex with men in the African-American community, it found that 46 percent of black men who have sex with men who--didn't know their HIV status. You also have people who live in places where there may be less tolerance or they feel less comfortable about being open about, you know, their sexuality. You'll notice that you have high rates of infection in the Southern part of the United States, where people are less likely to, you know, be openly gay or `out,' and so, therefore, they're having relationships with people without disclosing entirely who they are and what their identity or their sexual identity is. It doesn't mean necessarily that people are having more sex. It just means that people don't always know with whom they're dealing and don't know that they should be taking precautions regardless, especially, you know, if they don't know the person well.

GORDON: Brenda, we have a World AIDS Day. We see public service announcements. There's been a great deal of money spent on media campaigns to get this kind of word out. What else can be done to wash away this denial, if you will?

WILSON: Actually, you know, there are a lot of people who believe--in some respects, since the '80s when there was so much attention focused upon HIV, there is, in fact, almost less of a kind of public consciousness of it, I believe. I don't see as much--in spite of the fact that people seem to be a little bit more comfortable, I don't think the sort of public acknowledgement of the problem is as great as it used to be or as it was, say, a decade ago. I think what has happened is that the kinds of prevention efforts we need which require federal funding to target prevention--seems that the most effective way of getting people to change their behavior, which is the only thing that can protect people, are programs which sort of target specific groups.

And minority groups have always been underfunded in these respects, have not always had the technical capacity, in some respects, to do that kind of prevention. There are a number of factors that play into that. So my sense of it is that, until we sort of saturate the public and the community with this information, until people feel less stigmatized about, you know, HIV--and within the African-American community, you have people who already fear discrimination. This would just be simply one more instance in which they don't feel being open is going to help them.

GORDON: All right. NPR science correspondent and editor Brenda Wilson.

Brenda, thanks for joining us.

WILSON: Thank you, Ed.

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