February 7th, 2009
11:30 AM ET

The importance of Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer
Today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Normally at CNN we don’t do a lot of “Day” stories. We look for breaking news, or a new development that makes a long-running story seem fresh. There are good reasons for this, but sometimes it feels like an excuse to avoid talking about something really important. This is one of those times.

Why have a “Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day” at all? Isn’t this a terrible disease for anyone? Yes, but if you look at the numbers, you can see that African-Americans pay a higher price, by far. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all new infections are in African-Americans, who make up just 13 percent of the population. On average, African-Americans are less likely to be tested for HIV, less likely to get treatment and don’t live as long if they are infected with HIV. Last week I saw Dr. Kevin Fenton, who heads the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, say, “We’re in the middle of a crisis and we need to act as if we’re in the middle of a crisis.”

Facts, and more facts. But each case is something more. At the same meeting with Dr. Fenton, I met an author named Hilary Beard, who has written quite a bit about HIV and its impact on African-Americans in particular. She said it’s easy for people to look at facts like the ones I just mentioned, and think they’re telling a story about someone else. “Someone else, not me,” is how she put it. Beard also talked about how HIV is an intimate disease, in that most infections come through sexual contact. “Sexual contact” - what a turn of phrase. Or “risky sex.” What is that, really? Beard says this kind of language makes it easy to distance ourselves from the people who are ill. In her eyes, the HIV epidemic is in many ways a story about people who suffer, looking for love.

Now, I don’t want to romanticize the epidemic. A prostitute who gets infected turning tricks, doesn’t catch HIV by looking for love. And more than a third of new infections come through intravenous drug use. But according to CDC researchers, most HIV infections – for every ethnic group – occur within a two-person relationship. Those people looking for love. That’s especially true among African-American women. Says Beard, “Just being black woman IS a risk factor.” Also worth pointing out: according to Fenton, the surge of infections among African-Americans doesn’t reflect different behavior. It’s just that there’s more of the virus circulating among African-Americans, so each encounter is more risky.

Of course we need to prevent this terrible disease for everyone, and we need access to treatment, and better treatments, for anyone who gets infected. What to do? The CDC and the coalition of groups that organized the day of awareness, say you should educate yourself and speak out against discrimination that comes with the disease. They’re also urging people to get tested. To learn where to have a test done, you can call 1-800-CDC-INFO, or go to hivtest.org.

Do you worry about getting HIV/AIDS? Is it something you’ve talked about with a partner, or your children?

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.