National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was Feb. 8, a date that should remind us of the staggering HIV/AIDS statistics in African American communities and the importance of the fight to end this health disparity.
In December the state Department of Public Health released a report highlighting the substantial burden of HIV/AIDS in black communities. While blacks make up only 6 percent of the population in Massachusetts, nearly 30 percent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is borne by this group.
Black women are particularly impacted: They are affected by HIV/AIDS at a rate 23 times that of white women.
Sadly, despite the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in our communities of color, only 15 percent of blacks use prevention/education services and just 20 percent use HIV counseling/testing services, the report indicates. A recent small study involving focus group discussions with young, black women in Roxbury found that women believe that HIV testing messages need to be more widespread. When women were asked what message should be promoted in their community in an effort to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the majority of women put it very simply: “Get tested.” Women suggested that this message should be in community newspapers, on signs in local food establishments, and as slogans on clothing.
A “one size fits all” approach will be ineffective for this epidemic. The Commonwealth’s report calls for an expansion of “culturally-specific, public information about HIV,” an expansion of efforts to more effectively engage communities of color, and broader availability for HIV testing services in settings likely to be utilized by communities of color.
The young women of Roxbury want their voices heard. Our efforts to eliminate the HIV/AIDS racial and gender disparity in Massachusetts should engage these women. According to the most recent CDC data, HIV was the leading cause of death of African American women ages 25-34. In a city with some of the world’s brightest physicians, public health researchers and practitioners, and health policy leaders, it is unacceptable to ignore this epidemic in our own backyards. With our intellectual and financial resources, this tragedy must be addressed and these young women disproportionately affected must be engaged in the fight. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day reminds us that the time for action is now.
Monisha Arya, M.D., M.P.H.
Fellow, Infectious Diseases Division
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center