(Special to The Root) — On Thursday, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I had the pleasure of meeting with leaders who are doing outstanding work to prevent new HIV infections and improve health outcomes for African Americans. We shared stories and discussed the importance of engaging everyone in these efforts, including faith leaders, educators, athletes, entertainers, artists, scientists and health care providers as well as friends, families and neighbors.
This approach also reflects the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which calls for a collective response to the ongoing domestic epidemic and sets specific goals with regard to addressing HIV-related disparities among African Americans.
Our conversation was both sobering and inspiring. Sobering because of the challenges that remain in addressing the epidemic, including confronting the myths about HIV transmission and the virus itself. Inspiring because during our dialogue, it became clear that these leaders are committed to breaking down barriers that impede our progress in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS.
Data highlight the urgency of this work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS, and nearly 50,000 people become infected with HIV each year. In 2010, African Americans accounted for only 14 percent of the U.S. population but 44 percent of new HIV infections.
The majority (70 percent) of new HIV infections among African Americans occur among black men and are concentrated among gay men. In fact, young black gay and bisexual men are the only group in the black community for whom new HIV infections are increasing. Black women represent 30 percent of new infections among African Americans. Transgender black women are also at risk for HIV, with as many as 1 in 3 diagnosed with HIV in some studies. And only 21 percent of HIV-positive black Americans have a suppressed viral load, the key health marker for HIV treatment.
Conclusive research shows that African Americans do not engage in riskier behaviors than other Americans. So why are HIV rates so high in our communities? One main reason is the lack of access to health care. As many as 22 percent of African Americans with HIV do not know that they have the virus. Of new infections among youths, 60 percent are among black Americans, and more than half of all HIV-positive youths were unaware of their infection.