NEW YORK (NNPA) -- C. Virginia Fields notices that at almost every turn, sex is being used to advertise everything from sodas to automobiles. Yet, candid discussions about protecting African Americans from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, is often missing from homes, schools, barbershops, churches and other community institutions.
Fields, president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), said until that silence is pierced, we will continue to see HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, devastate Black America.
"The place where it needs to be discussed is still a taboo – our schools," said Fields. "We are not addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS as part of a comprehensive health education."
No one can deny HIV is a problem among African Americans. Although Blacks constitute 12 percent of the United States population, African Americans represent nearly 50 percent of all people infected each year with HIV. Blacks represent 13 percent of those aged 13-19 in the U.S., but comprise 69 percent of all new AIDS cases among teenagers.
Fields said that while it may be convenient to deny that teens are engaging in sexual intercourse, it does not reflect reality.
"They are not getting it by sitting on the toilets," Fields explained. "They are not getting it by just sitting in that classroom or sitting on a boy's lap."
An annual CDC survey of high school students disclosed that 47 percent of high school students admitted being sexually active, which means the actual figures are probably much higher. Of those engaging in sex, one-third said they were not using condoms.
And the consequences of unprotected sex are not only reflected in high HIV rates, but a recent spike in teenagers contracting such sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia. In 2006, a million teens were infected with a STD.
Adults have a role to play in helping curb STDs among teens.
Fields said, "Rev. [Calvin] Butts [pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and chairman of NBLCA's board of trustees] was telling a story recently when he was speaking to a group about when he was growing up, certainly as a teenager, how the barber would talk to the young boys about putting on their overcoats, making sure that they were covered and however they talked about condoms and so forth. But they don't even do that anymore."
Not only should those types of discussions be resumed, Fields said, schools should play a more prominent role in educating young people about protecting themselves.
"We should have in every public, private and faith-related school, curriculums that are focusing on public health and major ones on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases," she said.
For the past eight years, teenagers have received a limited – some say unrealistic – message from the federal government in particular. According to one Department of Health and Human Services survey, 80 percent of young people have received abstinence instructions, but fewer than 70 percent received information about birth control. Studies show that students who are taught about sex education in school are much more likely to postpone sexual acclivity.
Silence and a lack of knowledge also help account for the spread of HIV among Black women, Fields said.
African American women make up 61 percent of all new HIV cases among women, a rate nearly 15 times higher than White women. And 83 percent of Black females are infected through heterosexual activity, according to the CDC.
But too few people are aware of those figures.
Fields said, "Just this past year, when we met with state representatives here in the state of New York and were able to show them the impact in their own districts, one after one, they were always surprised."
She said she experienced a similar reaction when she mentioned HIV numbers to members of her sorority and others in her social circle.
Just as many adults are reluctant to acknowledge teenagers are having sex, prison authorities are also turning a blind eye to sexual contact among inmates.
"There continues to be reluctance by those in charge of prisons to acknowledge that," Fields said, referring to sexual activity behind bars. "If you are negative when you come in and you are positive when you leave – and you haven't been outside of that prison – where did you get it? Right there in that prison."
Fields said acknowledging the problem would open the door to supplying condoms to inmates, thus protecting them from HIV and, after their release, other unsuspecting victims.
She supports a bill by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) that would require federal prisons to test inmates for HIV upon their admission and discharge from correctional facilities. The bill, known as the Stop AIDS in Prison Act (H.R. 1429), was passed earlier by the House but was not taken up by the Senate. Waters reintroduced the bill last March.
"AIDS is spreading in our nation's jails and prisons," Waters said in a statement. "In 2005, the Department of Justice reported that the rate of confirmed AIDS cases in prisons was three times higher than in the general population."
She added, "The Stop AIDS in Prison Act will help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among prison inmates, encourage them to take personal responsibility for their health, and reduce the risk that they will transmit HIV/AIDS to other people in the community following their release from prison."
The United States, with more than 2 million people behind bars, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than two-thirds of those incarcerated are African American or Latino. The Black share of the prison population has increased from one-third two decades ago to more than half. At a senate hearing, experts testified that the sharp rise is attributable to changes in public policies, such as mandatory sentences, not increased crimes committed by African Americans.
C. Virginia Fields says everyone has a responsibility to address the disproportionate share of Blacks infected by HIV in and out of prison.
"All of us have got to be part of this conversation and no one can just feel that it's okay because they are not in any sub-population group," she said. "It is a risk for everybody. That's the message that all of us have to be part of telling."
(To view excerpts from George Curry's interview with C. Virginia Fields and other AIDS activists, visit www.youtube.com/blackaidsmedia. This series is made available as part of NNPA's support of Act Against AIDS and the Black AIDS Media Partnership's Greater Than AIDS campaign.)