Capital's HIV Cases Reflect Wider Problem Commentator Amy Alexander says the high rate of HIV infection in the nation's capital signals a crisis, especially for African Americans.

Capital's HIV Cases Reflect Wider Problem

Capital's HIV Cases Reflect Wider Problem

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Commentator Amy Alexander says the high rate of HIV infection in the nation's capital signals a crisis, especially for African Americans.

ED GORDON, host:

Here's some alarming numbers. Washington, D.C. has the highest rate of HIV infections in the country. One in every 20 district residents carries the virus. That statistic rivals some countries and Africa, where AIDS is one of the continent's most devastating diseases.

Here's commentator Amy Alexander.

AMY ALEXANDER reporting:

Even among the litany of grim health statistics that define the high mortality rates of black Americans--heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes--HIV and AIDS remains an unspoken taboo.

Consider, for example, a recent story in The Washington Post. Published at the end of March, it was a comprehensive look at what the state of AIDS in the District of Columbia, 25 years after the disease first appeared in the United States. According to the CDC in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., now has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the nation, with 179.2 cases per 100,000 residents.

Underlying the numbers, of course, are real people. And in Washington, I'm sad to say, the increase in AIDS diagnosis among blacks is devastating.

Take Patricia(ph), a 56-year-old black woman who agreed to share her story with The Post. A former heroin addict, Patricia was diagnosed with HIV nearly 20 years ago. Her sister, with whom she used to share needles, died of AIDS a few years ago at age 50. And now, Patricia fears that her own 20-year-old daughter is headed down the same path due to risky sexual behavior. What if she gets it, too? Patricia asked at the end of the story.

The generational aspect, the reality that AIDS in some black communities is being handed down the way that other families bequeath jewelry or property, is stunning. How did this happen? And why aren't black elected officials, clergy folk and community activists, beating down the doors of the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services for answers and solutions?

The answers are numerous, and involve the usual combination of lack of funding, political will, and the shame and stigma. But unlike the long list of health indicators that show black Americans dying earlier from preventable diseases like high blood pressure, discussions about the behavioral indicators for who gets HIV are off the table.

To our great credit, black America has come around to realizing that poor diets and lack of exercise are especially dangerous for us. But the bad behavior that leads to HIV, we're not hearing that. Not from our pulpits and not in a manner that is helpful, rational, and likely to educate our people about the dreadfully high stakes involved.

Black men are historically averse to seeking medical care, and even more likely to avoid seeking treatment for mental or emotional issues. This has created a big, mean elephant in the living room. Whatever the income level, black men struggling with drug addiction or sexual identity crisis, in many instances, will rather suffer in silence than seek the help of clinical professionals. This means that black men engaging in risky behaviors that make them vulnerable to HIV simply carry on unattended, untouched by the public service messages and educational campaigns designed to reinforce healthy behavior.

For all the billions of dollars spent in the 1980s when AIDS first showed up, little has been done to reach black citizens where they live. I'm not a doctor, or even a trained mental health professional. But as a citizen of the world, and one who's made a living chronicling the ups, downs, and in-betweens of black Americans, I can safely say that this is unacceptable.

The denial, shame, and stigma that continue to surround blacks and HIV must be vanquished before we are. That big, mean elephant sitting in our living room, intimidating and frightening though he may be, will never go away if we keep pretending he isn't there.

GORDON: Amy Alexander is an author and media critic from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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