HRC Blog

Marking National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

The following guest post comes from FrankJ. Oldham, Jr., President and CEO of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA):

February 7 marks another National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Another day in another year of an epidemic that has seemed like it would drag on forever, disproportionately affecting excluded groups like men who have sex with men, Americans of color, and the poor. As a Black gay man who has lived with HIV two decades, I know what being excluded means.

Another year - but this year in the Black community's fight against HIV is special. A year of opportunity and challenge.

The opportunity is historic.

For the first time, we know now we have the tools to make new HIV infections almost a thing of the past. Even without a vaccine or a cure yet, although we think they may come sooner than anyone expects.

We have discovered that treatment-as-prevention works, that people receiving quality HIV care and achieving undetectable viral load are almost - sadly not quite completely - unable to pass the virus on to new human hosts. That means if we can make HIV testing and treatment almost universal, we can bring down the number of untreated infections, and the number of new infections will come down with it. It's untreated HIV that spreads. Treatment for all can end this thirty-year nightmare.

Those of us who have buried our partners and friends know this opportunity is also a moral imperative. We must not fail to make the dream real. We owe it to those we have lost to make sure we don't lose more.

What does that mean for the Black community? It means know the facts: heterosexuals are at risk too, so when you play, play safe. It means get tested, every February 7 and more often if you are in a high-risk group like sexual minorities and injection drug users. It means get into treatment as early as possible if the test comes back positive. We owe it to our whole community.

The challenge is also historic.

Testing and treatment for all will take resources, resources, resources - and we have a Congress that seems to think the business of government is to put itself out of business. We have to persuade every voter that government has an essential role to play in the fight against HIV. And not just in that fight.

But there are even greater challenges ahead.

America's health care system does not treat lower-income Americans fairly. We need to defend the Affordable Care Act and make sure it is implemented in 2014 as originally passed, because otherwise lower-income Americans will not have access to the testing and early treatment that can end this epidemic. Leave the health care system as it is, and the epidemic really will drag on forever, taking even more of our brothers’ and sisters’ lives.

And we need to confront HIV stigma wherever we find it, including in the Black community. Too many would still rather not know whether they are HIV-positive or not, will even risk dying years too soon, because they don't see how they could live with the shame of knowing they are infected.

That has to change. Let's never forget that from the beginning HIV was a disease of exclusion. First it was for the "four H's," homosexuals, Haitians, heroin users, and hemophiliacs - with hemophiliacs referred to as "the innocent ones," which was a backhand way of saying all the others deserved what they were getting. HIV stigma is second-hand homophobia, and the Black community is not the only place we need to speak against it.

Stigma kills. The social injustice of an unfair health care system kills. We can't end what is now The Unnecessary Epidemic without facing and ending both. We salute the Human Rights Campaign for demanding marriage equality: equality brings respect, and respect will help end stigma. And we can't end The Unnecessary Epidemic until we recognize health care for all as a human right. NAPWA is party this year to two amicus curiae briefs in defense of the Affordable Care Act. Who knows - next year or the year after, we may join HRC and others in challenging DOMA!

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