National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

  • Mazzoni Center LGBT HIV AIDS Philadelphia
  • Mazzoni Center LGBT HIV Philadelphia PA
  • Mazzoni Center LGBT HIV Philadelphia PA

I’ll be honest: I have very ambivalent feelings about “awareness days.” 

February 7 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  As an African American who has been working in the HIV prevention field for more than a decade, I’m well aware of this occasion and its significance.

On the one hand, I can absolutely appreciate the importance of marking a specific day each year to recognize the disproportionate impact that HIV is having on African-Americans in the United States, and especially on our young people. 

On the other hand, I can’t deny that part of me feels like I am simply repeating messages that have become all too familiar. And I know there are some in the African American community who view these messages as being somewhat empty, driven more by a research or funding imperative than a genuine feeling of concern and connection to the people we are talking about ‘targeting.’  The nature of public health work, the research and data analysis and funding mechanisms, the developing and delivery of real-world initiatives, all of it taken together can sometimes feel mechanical, even when it stems from the best intentions.

The fact is that African Americans are infected with HIV at a higher rate than other populations.  According to the CDC, in 2014, 44% of estimated new HIV diagnoses in the United States were among African Americans, who comprise 12% of the US population. Of those new diagnoses, estimated 57% were gay or bisexual men, or men who have sex with men.  And of that group, 39% were young men aged 13 to 24.

What’s behind these disproportionate numbers?  A lot of it is about access to care, a lot of it is about what kind of care we get once we show up.  And frankly, that stinks.  Because in my experience with intake, I talk with all kinds of people who are engaging in the very same behavior that may place them at risk, but for all the reasons I just stated the outcomes for African Americans are different. 

And that hurts. I have to think about all of the various barriers that exist for this population - some of them are cultural, some of them are systemic, involving education, infrastructure, poverty, employment and insurance access, healthcare funding, etc.  I try to address one person at a time, because to address the larger systems can feel like fighting a losing battle.  Sometimes when I look at the data, it’s just dispiriting. 

But every day I come to work, I am reminded of why I do this.  We got a call this morning from someone that I assume - by their tone of voice and the language they used - to be a teenager.  This caller had important questions about their potential risk of exposure to HIV based on a recent sexual encounter.  He presented me with the scenario, the conversation he had with his partner, the revelation (after the fact) that the person they had engaged in sexual activity with was in fact HIV positive. 

I was struck by several things - the fact that this young person had the information to pick up the phone and give us a call.  They had obviously heard about the resources we have to offer.  This person had made informed decisions about their health in the course of their interaction - asking the partner about their HIV status, suspecting that the person was not fully honest, and therefore taking certain steps to protect themselves during the encounter, and then insisting after the encounter that the person get tested and share their (actual/confirmed) status.

All of this reaffirmed that this young person understood his own worth and the importance of standing up for himself and his safety.  I took a moment to commend this youth for the way he had taken ownership of his health, and he commented a few minutes later that I had made his day by acknowledging that.

So that’s something that really excites me -- working with younger people, and seeing how they are able to navigate and advocate for themselves.  They have access to prevention services and they are tapping into them.  When I see the various peer support groups that are centered around African Americans and young folks in particular - groups such as #A1PHA and TRIP -- I get excited about youth being here and getting that information.  I just wish there were more resources and more services available to reach everyone who needs them. 

Another thing that excites me is the availability of PrEP, which is an incredibly effective prevention tool that didn’t exist a few years ago.  I feel truly optimistic because we now have this tool, and Mazzoni Center is working hard to make sure that folks who are interested in PrEP are able to access it. So these days when folks come into Wash West and want to get tested for HIV, they’re doing the best they can to reduce their risk, and we are able to further educate them and offer those who are interested access to PrEP.  So that’s a really exciting development. 

I understand that each time we deliver a positive diagnosis, it has a huge impact on the person sitting across from our counselor.  But I also know that we have the resources and tools to support this person, to ensure they get the medical care they need to live a healthy life, and any number of additional services - from support groups to prescription assistance and much more -- depending on their situation.  And simply by that person knowing their status, they have taken a major step to improving their health, and to reducing the risk of further infections.

Which brings me back to testing.  On Sunday, February 7, our walk-in testing site at 1201 Locust Street, the Washington West Project, will be open for free, confidential HIV testing from 3 to 7 p.m.  I’m glad we’ll be offering this service on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and I hope we see a lot of folks come in to get tested. 

Every month I review our internal data along with citywide testing data, so I am well aware of the imperative to reach more African Americans with HIV testing and prevention tools.  I just don’t want to send a message that the need for awareness fades away after a certain day or month, or that we are targeting one group in a way that feels marginalizing. 

I’d like people to know that we are open EVERY day -- seven days a week, throughout the year -- and we are here for EVERYONE.  Because we recognize the importance of making HIV testing accessible, easy, and free of stigma. 

My goal is to make each and every person who walks through the door at Wash West, or comes into contact with any of our staff through the Mobile Testing Unit or any of our outreach events feel welcomed and supported.

We’re here for you, and we will be every day.

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