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?

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Politically Incorrect?

    The author states that the difference in AIDS prevalence among blacks is not due to differences in behavior, yet that is completely impossible. HIV entered the US through a single individual, and now it is much more prevalent in blacks. Unless you claim that blacks have a greater chance of contracting the virus while exhibiting the same behavior as other groups, the only possible explanation is that blacks engage in significantly more unprotected sex and/or needle sharing, We are trying to make these people seem like victims when (outside of those born with it) it is entirely their fault. Of course, the same fault applies to every other person of any racial group who gets HIV through unprotected sex and needle sharing, it just seems that blacks are more reckless in their behavior.

    February 8, 2009 at 07:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. akande05

    This article omitted the very important fact that intravenous drug use is also a major mode of transmission of HIV/AIDS. I don't want people to read this article and leave with the impression that African Americans are simply hypersexual creatures. A big reason for transmission is lack of protection during sexual intercourse and intravenous drug use, and while I think it is very important to talk about being careful and selective about your sexual partners, it is not due diligence to exclude using protection during sexual intercourse and avoiding intravenous drug use could be ways of preventing transmission of this terrible disease.

    February 8, 2009 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sue

    I don't worry about HIV/AIDS because I am monogamous and don't believe in illicit sexual relations. I have taught this this to my children, as well. My husband and I were both virgins when we married and have remained faithful to each other. Though I was teased unmercifully when younger, I often have the last laugh over friends who are still looking for "Mr. Right", or simply other friends who have had multiple, unsatisfying, too brief relationships.
    Has it been worth it once you contract this dread disease for which there still is no cure? Is free sex all it's cracked up to be? People who sleep with others who've slept with others, have really slept with all those "others". Ignorance or thinking it's a gay disease, or that it won't happen to an individual is not an excuse any more. Wake up Black America! Protect yourself, stop sleeping around, and think before you dive under those covers.

    February 8, 2009 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Sue

    You can also stop abusing drugs and sharing needles. Go to rehab and seek therapy for your addictions. Talk to someone – there's no good reason why you shouldn't. Lastly, if you have any kind of faith at all, pray for strength and guidance, and accept the help and wisdom of God's loving care.

    February 8, 2009 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. medhead

    Thanks for blogging about this. Along with Beard, the HHS thinks people should "decide not to engage in high risk behaviors." As you ask above, what, exactly *is* that referring to? How can we protect ourselves (especially inside the beltway, where HIV rates are higher than anywhere else in the country, and as high as Uganda, or instance) when information about the subject is clouded in rhetoric?

    February 9, 2009 at 00:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Samantha

    It is extremely unsettling to think that we are attaching a face to the global epidemic of AIDS. I know that for the purpose of awareness and from pure statistics, that the face of AIDS in the U.S is now black women as oppose to what it once was, homosexual men. However, for a disease that is stigmatized so much in this country as well as all over the world, it is unsettling to know that the media is attaching AIDS to marginalized population (ei. gay men and black women). I recognized that statistics also show that there has been a decline in the population of gay men who are contracting AIDS but this is in large part is due to the movement of gay men banding together to raise awareness/action on the issue. However, gay men are still to this day stigmatized for being the population that spread AIDS in the U.S in the 20th century and now we are trying to do it to women in the 21st century. I think it is wonderful that CNN reported that there is an increase on the affects in AIDS in the black population but I can't help but wonder in we are going about awareness in the wrong way by attaching this stigmatized disease to an already marginalized population.

    February 9, 2009 at 00:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. AJ


    I find that your comments are totally unfeeling and take a superior tone. Your comments assume that everyone in Black America is ignorant, promiscuous and an addict. As an African-American woman I know that this is not the case.

    Instead of focusing on the epidemic of HIV/AIDS and prevention of the disease, for many years, we have focused on the various populations that have been affected by the disease, such as gay men and now black women. Our HIV/AIDS message is still not focused. Its amazing the strides the U.S. have made in fighting the epidemic in other countries and yet we still do not have a comprehensive message for this country. There are other issues in the African-American community that contribute to the high incidences of HIV/AIDS, such as men returning to the community from prison.

    Yes, I would like to say to everyone, you should be more like me and seek monogamy, marriage and sobriety. However, I know that this a long shot. Teaching your children and teens about committed relationships and being monogamous is all well and good. How about teaching them to be compassionate and to show love for their fellow man? In addition, to monogamy, you should also be teaching them about practicing safe sex and protecting themselves against this disease. No matter what you teach, life has a way of happening and not always in ways that we expect.

    Its funny, I remember a person I grew up with who's mother died from AIDS. She was in a committed and allegedly "faithful" relationship. She was married to her husband for a number of years and had lost her virginity to him. He died from cancer or so she thought. What he neglected to tell his wife of many years was that he was HIV positive. She later found out after his death that she had full blown AIDS. I say this to say that we all have to be careful and not sit in judgment of any person or community.

    February 9, 2009 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Shae-- Dallas

    Okay, here's the deal. . . .
    The key to stopping this epidemic in the Black Community is the Black Woman !!! If Black Women would take resposibility for their lives and INSIST that these Black Men get tested for HIV/AIDS prior to sex and INSIST that they use condoms this madness would stop.
    Black women are becoming infected with AIDS more than any other group in this country. It's not Rocket Science. Use A Condom!!! I'm always amazed by how black women can stand up to anybody in this country except black men. It is obvious that black men DON'T GIVE A DAMN and are not going to confront this issue. I say that because the masses of African Americans meet at the church. Most of these churches have AA men as leaders, these black men (pastors) have a platform in these mega churches to address this issue but very few of them are doing it. So the black woman has to take the initiative.

    What else do we want America to do for us concerning this matter? HELL this country has given us tv commercials, radio announcements, even celebrities are begging us to use condoms. WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT THEM TO DO ???? I know that it's hard for us to imagine that Ray Ray or Mookie are in prison pushing up on men or that they are cheating on you with another woman but the reality is . . . that's what the Hell is happening. So Black Women here is STD Prevention 101 . . . Insist on an HIV/AIDS Test AND HOW ABOUT USING A CONDOM

    February 9, 2009 at 13:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Russell

    This is the dumbest thing i have ever heard,aids awareness day should apply to everyone.the black community want to be treated equally but they always special privilages.they should be able to figure out how to protect themself just like the rest of us.

    February 9, 2009 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Lashaun

    Question: Could the rampant homophobia in the African American community be a contributing factor? (Note: Media reports indicate approximately 70% of AA voters in California voted FOR Prop. 8 to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.) Is the problem in part that gay AA men are vilified and ostracized by their own community, go out on the 'down-low' to find sexual release, and then return to their wives, girlfriends and other AA women to maintain their ties to their community? Just asking – waiting for the freak out....

    February 9, 2009 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Mark

    Russell, if you actually researched before commenting, you would know that other ethnic groups have HIV/AIDS Awareness Days, not just African Americans. Get it correct before you assume someone is seeking special attention or "special rights".

    February 9, 2009 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. jane

    Shae from Dallas is right on target. Regarding whether Blacks are hyper sexual, statistics show that blacks have far more sexual partners than whites and blacks start having sex sooner than other ethnic groups. proof that condom use is down: look at the number of teen pregancies and single parent households among blacks. it is far greater than whites. Because there are so few eligible black men (most are dead or in prison), black women feel that they can't stand up to their sexual partners and refuse unprotected sex because they know they will lose the guy.

    That being said, there are many highly educated, hard-working black professional women like Condi Rice or Michelle Obama who don't fall for this but they are few and far between because they had to make the choice to put education and career ahead of family. Because of their financial independence they have the ability to say no.

    The solution? Black girls need to stay in school and keep their legs crossed, just like affluent white girls.

    February 9, 2009 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. AJ

    Combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic is about more than having advertising/commercials geared towards you. These ads are not on all tv stations or all radio stations, which means there is a segment of the population that may never see or hear these ads. Fighting this battle is more about education. Telling people to get tested does not help if people do not know where to go to get tested or even if people do not realize that free testing is available or that free condoms are given out by various community organizations. How many people realize that a lot of public libraries have comprehensive information about HIV/AIDS including a list of community organizations that educate and provide services?

    I agree that the black woman needs to stand up to the black men and demand testing and the use of condoms and that the black church needs to be more pro-active in this fight. Our focus on one specific community means that someone else is not getting the message.

    February 9, 2009 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. BlackScorpio

    I'm an advocate of forethought. I believe the problems start at home. All of the comments have weight. But I find the most weighs on Shae-Dallas' comment. Folks we have to take responsibility for our own actions. We don't want the whites looking through a narrow tube at us, so we need to stop giving them ammunition to do so. Surprisingly enough they feel they are the righteous race and don’t have any responsibility for the way the United States is today. If you check your history you’ll find that the government (CIA – it ran on the history channel last week) was running tests for bacteria/biological warfare on us long before the aids epidemic ran wild. I mean do you remember Pres. Clinton apologizing publicly to the last surviving Tuskegee Airman? Add it up, read you’re history. So regardless of how the disease got here we need to stop with the lasciviousness. We have been victims for far too long and regardless if you’re gay or straight, married or single, right or wrong, black or white, man or woman- the buck starts or stops with you.

    Just because you are in a relationship and you feel you are monogamous with that person does not mean they are returning the favor. The caveat to that is… You just don't know. We are human beings, supposedly conscious human beings, but for some reason we can understand the value of life and or the value of love. We need to understand that our decisions have consequences and maturing or evolving from childhood to adulthood should have shortened the gap. Don't get me wrong I am no better than any other person on this planet. I just don't understand why we fight each another the way we do. Why we can't understand what needs to happen in order for our society to get better.

    Reach one… Teach one – God Bless US ALL!!!!


    February 9, 2009 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Joe

    TO AJ: I concur with Sue. If you were to reverse this "Black Aids Day" to "White Aids Day", practically every white American would be called a bigot who supported this. Frankly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about black this and African American that...and for the record, I have black friends who get tired of it as well.

    We all bleed red, I'd say we have a common Creator...and no, He didn't make a mistake. Instead of having joy with our differences, there are some who just have to cram it down your throat.

    I'm also tired of people making excuses...and now with a black president, I'm hoping that many blacks will stop making them because of the pigment in their skin.

    February 10, 2009 at 04:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. UVC

    Yes, the African ethnic goups have a higher risk of contracting the virus even if they behave the same as other ethnic groups. It is due to evolution which gave 90% of Africa the duffy-negative gene variant in order to survive malaria. They are more resistant to malaria, but more vulnerable to HIV.

    February 10, 2009 at 10:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. AJ


    Yes, I agree with you that there would be serious outcry if there was a White HIV/AIDS day. Why not focus on getting HIV/AIDS education to all communities? Religious organizations, personal responsibility and the family have to also be a part of this equation as so eloquently pointed out by Shae, Black Scorpio and Sue.

    Let me state again that I am in support of HIV/AIDS education for all people, not just African-Americans. I do not believe at this nor any other time that All African-Americans sleep around, use drugs and are ignorant and as a consequence HIV/AIDS has exploded in the African-American community. I refuse to paint All African-Americans or any community with the same brush; nor will I condemn all people of one community.

    February 10, 2009 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jana B DC Public Health

    Thank you Dr. Gupta for writing about Black HIV/AIDS awareness Day. I too blogged about the day on Saturday (NW to SE). Living in the District where the HIV/AIDS rate is 1 out of 20 resident and 80% of the cases are among the black community one can say that the concern is overwhelming. That is putting it nice.

    What I have read on this "forum" has made me vomit. The "theys" and various comments. Here it is folks. . . I am white, in my 20's, I am in public health, I date black men, I have been cheated on, etc. When I hear ignorant people saying things like "I choose to be with one person so it doesn't affect me" GET OVER IT. There are too many PEOPLE, YES, Men, Women, who have been cheated on just once- maybe even their spouse ventured out with the same sex. . . and heaven forbid Sue and Joe with another race. . . and guess what JOE, stop pulling the "Black President card" President Obama is half white. Everyone IS affected in some way by HIV/AIDS, whether it be family and friends, pocketbook, or through the goodness of their heart.

    Here are the facts, that yes the HIV/AIDS rate is so alarmingly high in the black community and I, along with my friends, classmates, community members are doing our best to educate through condom distribution and empowerment of making better choices. Joe, there is not a reason to have "White Aids Day" that is what AIDS was thought to be a GAY WHITE MANS DISEASE.

    No one is cramming anything down anyone's throat. This is not about you, or Sue or whoever on this forum it is about the peoples lives. Maybe instead of talking you could start doing. If HIV/AIDS is not your "thing" and it "doesn't affect you" as you say, then pick something else. But please don't hurt the work that I know I am spending my time, my tears to at least try and help a little. Because we do all bleed red.

    February 10, 2009 at 12:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. UVC

    To Politically Incorrect and others here: YES! genetic differences among different ethnic groups make them more or less probable to contract HIV if and when exposed. Due to the bubonic plague hitting Europe and not Africa, 15% of Europeans today have a gene variant that prevents HIV from infecting their cells. In Africa, 90% have Duffy-Negative gene variant which developed and spread as a defense against certain types of malaria. However Duffy-Negative makes them 40% more likely to be infected by HIV if exposed. Genetic differences effect how different groups respond to HIV, HCV, and even influenza.

    February 11, 2009 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Sean

    Is the point of the article that we should be blaming black women for the prevalence of AIDS amongst black Americans as some of these responses seem to be doing? Or is it that we need to do more as Americans to protect our minority groups so that one day as we find ourself a minority we can feel confident that our needs will not be dismissed? Black AIDS/HIV Awareness day is a tool for improving health, not an excuse to revert to 1980's stigma.

    February 12, 2009 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. papalou

    What are you all trying to say? It sounds like you are saying that the black community is too stupid to learn how to avoid HIV-Aids. Why can't blacks find out what resources are available in their communities? Why can't blacks go to their libraries to find HIV-AIDS information? Why can't black men keep their pants zipped? I believe that men and women should stay celibate until marriage. So does my wife and all my close friends and associates. We stay faithful to one another. I don't know one person who has contracted AIDS. It is a disease which does not affect me. If my children begin living a promiscuous life, and contract AIDs, then it will affect me. But if they live a clean life, they will never contract the disease (unless they have a cheating spouse who brings it home to them). This disease spreads because people do not want to live a clean, virtuous lifestyle. They want to live without rules or limits and they cry because the aids virus does not care. It is truly non-discriminating.

    February 12, 2009 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. BlackScorpio

    We are acting like children in the blame game. People, it's not about us. It's about our future. OUR KIDS. So Joe, Sue and/or whoever else believes we (blacks) are a primitive race take, a look at this fact. You can't control who your sons or daughters love. It may just be a person of color, a minority. God forbid the minority may have a disease to pass on. 1 and every 3 people have some form of STD or have had one in their lives. What are you going to do when YOU find out? Let's say you find out after a pregnancy, they may want kids and the condom would have to come off. Sounds like you have the complex, "Well it doesn't affect my world." Martin Luther King, Jr. said something so profound that I carry as a part of my thoughts every day. ""What affects one directly affects another indirectly." So continue to shun the idea of "Change" until it happens in your family. We have to change the "NORM" of human behavior. We have this control, and yet we ignore it.

    History is important because it shows me where we've been so that I can understand the steps I need to take tomorrow. We are one on this planet, yet we are destroying it, "Biting the hand that feeds us. We try to find little corners on a round planet to hide from the masses. However the reality is... there is NO other place to go. We are polluted with selfishness and can't see the errors of our arrogance. Right now you are a part of a linkless chain and needs to connect to reality of our reality.

    You have no more control than I on what people do. But we can teach (with love), and hope that eventually we get the picture, for our children’s sake. I'm sure that’s what a teacher, professor or your mother/father thought as you were growing up.

    Reach one... Teach one... GOD Bless us all...

    February 12, 2009 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Chris

    The defeat of HIV/AIDS will only come with continued awareness and support. Get the word out and ad your AIDS Awareness Ribbon to your site or blog:


    March 10, 2009 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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