A Pioneer Activist on World AIDS Day

Debra Fraser-Howze talks about the rowdy, heart-wrenching early days in the fight against the epidemic.

Debra Fraser-Howze
Debra Fraser-Howze

(The Root) — This year marks the 25th celebration of World AIDS Day, and according to activists like National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS founder and current OraSure Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Debra Fraser-Howze, it’s been a tumultuous but rewarding journey.

In the early 1980s, Fraser-Howze was working with the Urban League to reduce teen pregnancy when a young man who was HIV positive came into her clinic. He had a pregnant girlfriend and another child by a different woman. At the time, U.S. safety rhetoric told people that condom use would reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but Fraser-Howze knew that the large number of teen moms meant few people were following that advice. And when a co-worker asked her whether the young man could’ve spread HIV to both of his partners as well as his children, she knew an epidemic was on the horizon.

Gathering the major players of New York’s health, religious and political sector, Fraser-Howze soon began the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS and has worked tirelessly to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community ever since. This battle included a few harried moments where activists of color faced off against white gay male activists who thought HIV was chiefly their community’s concern. According to Fraser-Howze, at one particular confab the Fruit of Islam even had to act as security guards for her and her colleagues.

Now, as a senior vice president of government affairs at OraSure, which recently released the first at-home HIV test, called OraQuick, Fraser-Howze hopes that the product, which can be purchased at pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens, can help the more than 200,000 Americans who are HIV positive but don’t know it.

On this World AIDS Day, The Root spoke with Fraser-Howze about her early days of HIV and AIDS activism, what progress has been made since then and the biggest challenge African Americans face today in conquering this pandemic.

The Root: What was the first World AIDS Day like 25 years ago?

Debra Fraser-Howze: It was a blessing. For the first time, there was an international acknowledgement that brought the African and African-American communities together on an issue we knew was affecting both of us across two continents deeply. Twenty-five years ago, a lot of people still thought that HIV and AIDS was only a white, gay male problem — it used to be called G.R.I.D., the gay-related immune deficiency disease.

Around that time, we’d heard from then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop that this disease was coming into our community like an out-of-control locomotive. But African Americans were still having a hard time understanding how we were burying black gay men in unimaginable numbers. Black women were also dying from all sorts of different cancers, and when activists in New York City looked back [at the medical records of women who’d died], we realized those diseases were HIV-related.

In the 1990s the HIV and AIDS health enclave identified cervical cancer as one of the opportunistic infections that the Centers for Disease Control would use to classify somebody moving from HIV infection to full-blown AIDS. It wasn’t a standard practice then to ask women about or to test them for the HIV epidemic. But if we’d noticed that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a heterosexual problem everywhere else except the United States and how closely related the African-American and African community’s actions, behaviors and norms were, it [wouldn’t have been] hard to realize that there could be some transference through behavior and many of our women could be infected.