We’re in This Together By Ulysses Burley III, MD MPH
There is a long history of public health disenfranchisement that has directly impacted Black people in America. Whether it’s the “Mississippi Appendectomies” where black women were sterilized without their consent; or the U.S. Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis in black men in Tuskegee, Alabama that spanned 40 years; or the disproportionate levels of uninsured and underinsured black Americans; and now the disparate impact of COVID-19 — the relationship between Black people and healthcare systems has been and remains tenuous.

In 1966 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the issue of health disenfranchisement at the 2nd National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights — a group of American health care professionals that initially organized in June 1964 to provide medical care for civil rights workers, community activists, and summer volunteers working in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” project.

Dr. King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death. I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”

While Dr. King has long since breathed his last breath, his words still ring true today, “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman,” and the disparity could not be more apparent than in the HIV/AIDS epidemic raging in Black America.

Every Black History Month since 1999 we’ve commemorated National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7, to do just as King instructed 55 years ago: “raise the conscience of the nation” about the most notorious expression of medical apartheid — HIV in Black communities.

Of the 1.2M people living with HIV in the U.S., nearly half are Black, with Black people also accounting for half of all new infections even though Blacks only make up 13% of the population. Until just 13 years ago HIV was the leading cause of death among Black women of reproductive age, and while we’ve cut the rate of infection in Black women nearly in half since then, Black women still have the highest rate of HIV infection among women. To put things in further perspective, the CDC estimates that 1 in 2 Black same gender loving men who have sex with men will be infected in their lifetime if rates remain at their current levels.

Even amid a COVID-19 pandemic, HIV remains the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime – not just for Black America, but the United States of America. That’s why this year’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD) theme is “We’re in This, Together.”
Here are four key ways that we can commemorate NBHAAD and have immediate impact together include things we can do individually:

1. Know your status by getting tested for HIV. Of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, 1 in 7 of them don’t know they have the virus. That amounts to 168,000 people not receiving treatment, and possibly transmitting the virus to others – accounting for 40% of all HIV transmissions. Be empowered in knowing your status by getting tested and encourage others to do the same.
2. Financially support community-based HIV and AIDS service organizations. Consider organizations like the Black AIDS Institute – which is committed to eradicating the disease in the African diaspora; or the Positive Women’s Network USA who prepares women living with HIV for all levels of health policy; or the Southern AIDS Coalition, an important organization tackling HIV in the South where the rate of HIV is the highest and majority of the Black people live.
3.  Actively work to eradicate HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Stigma claims more lives than HIV. Discrimination against key populations at greatest risk for HIV exposure discourages people from getting tested and treated, or even worse – from loving themselves. Our inclusive and affirming attitudes backed by HIV positive advocacy reduces stigma, removes shame, and normalizes the HIV conversation.
4. We must be willing to address HIV and AIDS as communities of faith.
According to Pew Research, Black people are the most religious racial/ethnic group in the U.S. That means faith likely plays an outsized role in other areas of daily life for Black Americans, including health, wellness, and identity. In addition to the social barriers that exist, communities of faith must engage in honest conversation about tough subjects like sex and sexuality and the faith community’s failure to embrace the LGBTQIA+ community who live with the greatest burden of HIV in this country. Together we must create sacred space for storytelling because stories increase awareness, and awareness builds empathy, and empathy is the tie that binds us together.
The good news is
we now have the medicine to keep people living with HIV and their loved ones healthy, and to protect vulnerable populations like people of African descent from HIV transmission. The bad news is that stigmatization and discrimination prevent those who need these medicines most from accessing them. The challenges associated with stigma present opportunities for diverse faith communities to step up and do what people of faith are called to do for the most vulnerable among us – advocate for JUSTICE.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 21st century is a social justice imperative. The intersectionality of the disease means that we can curb HIV illness by fighting social ills like poverty, racism, gender inequality, LGBTQIA+ discrimination, and mass incarceration. With this type of dis-ease, you don’t have to be a physician or a scientist to make a difference. In fact, we have all the science and medicine we need to relegate HIV to a chronic illness that isn’t of pandemic proportion. What we need now more than ever, is to treat people and not just disease.
We’re in this, together!
And together we can end the HIV epidemic in Black America, effectively eradicating the virus as a public health crisis in these United States.
About the US HIV & AIDS Faith Coalition The US HIV & AIDS Faith Coalition is composed of people of faith, faith leaders, people living with HIV and people working in the HIV and AIDS response working together to develop and implement strategies to strengthen the faith response to HIV the toward ending the epidemic.
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The United Church of Christ serves as the fiscal agent for the US HIV & AIDS Faith Coalition.

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