"I didn't realize the statistics had gotten so bad," said Rev. Jean Burch of Pasadena's Community Bible Church. She was reacting to the latest news from experts about the HIV epidemic among African-Americans. "We must take this on as a ministry opportunity," said Rev. Burch.
Statistics show African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 47 percent of all new HIV infections. Black women are among the hardest hit. Most get the virus through heterosexual sex with infected partners. Black women are more likely to contract HIV than White women and Latinas. HIV infection is one of the top 10 leading causes of death for black females, ages 10 to 54.
"This is a situation that can be addressed and reversed," said Dr. Michael Gottlieb, HIV/AIDS Medical Specialist. He's one of the doctors who first identified AIDS as a new disease back in 1981. "The disease took on the face of gay white men. AIDS was smoldering in the Black community all along, but did not get a lot of attention," said Dr.Gottlieb.
More than 30 years later, African-Americans still don't talk honestly and openly about the disease, said Marva Brannum, Clinical Pharmacist and HIV Specialist. Experts say a deep stigma remains associated with HIV, fueled in part by fear and homophobia. "There is some well-deserved mistrust of government and the health bureaucracy in the Black Community," said Dr. Gottlieb. You can get infected with HIV outside of sex by sharing drug needles, or tattooing and body piercing, according to the AIDS Service Center. Infected women can also pass the virus on to their babies during pregnancy.
Dr. Gottlieb said a positive test result is no longer a death sentence and people are living well with HIV, as a result of many advances in treatments.
Experts say the best action plan to reduce the high HIV infection rate among African-Americans is more education and for everyone to get tested. Dr. Gottlieb warned that "anything you can't talk about in the open, and has to go underground, is dangerous for public health."
Current HIV tests involve an oral swab or a finger prick. And you don't have to wait long to get the results.
Gottlieb and the other experts spoke out about the HIV epidemic during a recent community outreach program sponsored by the AIDS Service Center. It took place at First A.M.E. Church in Pasadena. One African-American woman in the small audience said, "No one who looks like us is talking about it. This is a piece of the puzzle."
[Reva Hicks is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who worked at Channel 4 News for more than 30 years.]