Battling HIV/AIDS in African-American Communities
Ed Gordon, host:
Now, for more of what can be done to slow the spread of AIDS in Black America, I sat down with Debra Fraser-Howze, president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. She formerly served on President Clinton's presidential advisory council on HIV/AIDS, and believes black America has been hit hardest by the disease because it was caught off guard.
Ms. DEBRA FRASER-HOWZE (President and CEO, National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS): We did not actually get very much targeted for this epidemic in prevention education until about 1985 to 1989 when people started to say that this epidemic is moving in communities of color like a locomotive out of control. That was C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general at the time, who said that to us on the front page actually of Ebony Magazine. What you see now is sort of the outgrowth of that.
People are dying faster, but they've been affected for a long time but did not know it. So they're therefore infecting other people. Now what we have is a state of emergency in the African American community with this epidemic.
GORDON: Debra, I know one of the key issues for African Americans and those that fight this is the idea of denial. That seems to be a huge problem in the community. We've been talking about this again time and time again. What is going to have to happen, in your opinion, to wake this community up?
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: Well, one of the things that we're doing with the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, there are going to be about 1,000 community based organizations participating and testing and education. The tagline is Get Educated, Get Tested and Get Involved. The problem, Ed, is that it takes more than one day. I believe that the way we got this information has so confused us. First we were told that this epidemic came from a green monkey out of Africa. Then we were told the Haitian community was responsible for the epidemic, both of which were not true. Now we're told a number of things. But what we are seeing is that African American women are the highest rising rates of new infection in the country.
If we don't wake up from this, I don't know how we will wake up. We'll all be asleep, because we won't be here.
GORDON: How concerned are you about some studies that we've seen recently. A new RAND study showed that 500 African Americans polled, half believed that AIDS was created by scientists; 12 percent credited the CIA with creating AIDS. A Washington Post story found recently 44 percent of African Americans polled there said that the AIDS drugs that are being tested and taken now were being used--the African Americans are being used as guinea pigs by the government. When you hear this, and obviously historically there's reason for many to look skeptically, how much do you believe that this is part of the problem?
Ms. FRASER-ROWZE: I caution anybody who finds that they are HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS and they're put on medication, I caution you to take your medication. That's absolutely absurd when you look at--when we go back to the gay white community, and you look at their death rate, their death rate is down 47 percent, and our infection rate is up 56 percent. They're going to be here when a cure is found. If we do not adhere to the medication, we will not be here when a cure is found. So that's the first thing I want to say.
And the second thing, yes, the whole notion that this is a sort of genocidal disease--and I understand all of those conspiracy theories, and I tell people all the time, there's going to be a group of people that should be put together to do nothing but look at the conspiracy of what's going on. But right now, we know that it's homicidal if you do not get yourself tested and you spread this disease to someone else. I mean, if we get so stuck in the conspiracy that we die, then the conspiracy wins. And I think that's unconscionable, and I also...
GORDON: And Debra, we have to know this is a huge number of people. We like to turn away from this subject. And people kind of laugh about the down low phenomenon that has been satirized at times even. But this is a tremendous problem.
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: You know, I've been looking at the way people have been--and especially the newspapers and television has been playing up the down low phenomenon. But they only call it down low when it comes to black men. When Governor McGreevy got up and said, I'm a gay American, everybody sort of embraced that. But I've never seen anybody look at someone like McGreevy or a white man and say that they're on the down low. This is a phenomenon in all communities. But I'm going to tell you this, social responsibility, community responsibility at this point, is going to be the only thing that saves us. And I would go out of my way to ensure that if I knew a sister was with a brother who was sleeping around with other men, that she knew that. She needs to know that so that she can make a choice. He should not make that choice for her.
ED GORDON, host: Yes, but your still very atypical in our community. I mean, you being the President of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, it's your life to go out and talk about this and rattle the cage, but we still are very uncomfortable as a community talking about this. How do we make people more comfortable in dealing with this front and center?
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: We don't talk about sex. And I remember when my daughter was on the train on her way to Vassar going to college and I was trying to talk to her, I'd already talked to her about sex; but I was a teenage pregnancy expert and I couldn't get it out. I wasn't really as comfortable as I should be with it and she took the conversation over and taught me some things that I had not known before.
I mean, you can use any means that you want, but it is time for our community to come off of its conservative vent and begin to talk about sex. And I think that we need to start talking about women and children. I think that we've seen this as a white, gay disease for so long, we're unclear as to where this disease is in our community and what's going on with it. When the community really realizes that we're getting ready to lose our women and children, I think they're going to have another level of conversation.
GORDON: I have to be honest: I'm not terrible optimistic that we're going to see, in the next few years, our community really understand the epidemic that we're in.
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: Ed, I think that some things are going to have to change. The more people know that they are infected, so that they can stop having unprotected sex and going around infecting other people, I think there's going to be some change in that. We do have a rapid test; you can find out if you're HIV positive in 20 minutes.
We're going to have to look at this disease in a new way and AIDS has been with us for 25 years, it's a relatively new disease.
GORDON: Mm hmm.
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: It's a baby in the disease world and now we see where it is, we just have to be vigilant and never ever, ever give up, because we're worth it.
GORDON: While never giving up on something like this that could really, truly wipe out our community, I think what we have to become and when I say tired of it, I'm tired of us turning away from what is real and what is in front of us.
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: Absolutely.
GORDON: We have to become real about this situation, don't we?
Ms. FRASER-HOWZE: Absolutely. I'm getting ready to pull a meeting together of the religious right and left. And I need to, we need to have a talk with them because clearly in the State of the Union Address, the President has talked about attacking this disease in the African-American community through the Black church. But we need to know right now, you know, exactly where the black church is on all of this. We've taken years to get the black church to come around, the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS is one of the first agencies in the country to work with black clergy and, in fact, our affiliates are all headed by Black clergy.
But we've got to meet them where they are and then they need the resources to get the word out, get people tested. They need training, they need instruction. You know, we can't just say we're going to throw up our hands and put it all on the church and then walk away from it because the church is going to save every body with a prayer. I mean, we need to be involved in the planning of that now, as we speak.
GORDON: Debra Fraser-Howze, the president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, thanks for joining us today.
FRASER-HOWZE: Thank you so much, Ed.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.