In the 25 years since the first reported cases of AIDS, significant progress has been made, yet there is much more we can do to stop the spread of the disease.
National Black AIDS Awareness Day, celebrated on Feb. 7, is a perfect opportunity for us to identify and implement needed improvements that will adequately provide effective care and treatment to HIV/AIDS patients across the country. On this day, it is imperative that each of us contemplates the enormity of what this epidemic has wrought, particularly in the African American community.
More and more, HIV/AIDS is a disease that affects us all. It is no longer a disease that is limited in its influence or devastation. Times have changed, and our strategy to combat this disease must evolve to adequately address the needs of those suffering. In 1990, HIV/AIDS overwhelmingly afflicted White homosexual men living in large metropolitan areas.
Seventeen years later, the picture is completely different.
In 2006, HIV/AIDS mainly affected women, people in small towns and rural areas and persons of color — especially African Americans.
In fact, African Americans account for more HIV/AIDS cases and HIV-related deaths than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 75 percent of this nation's newly reported HIV cases are among people of color. Additionally, while African Americans represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, we accounted for more than half of AIDS cases diagnosed in 2005.
In 2005, African American women accounted for two-thirds (67 percent) of new AIDS cases among all women. Simply stated, this adds up to disaster for the African American community.
Racial and ethnic minorities are already at greater risk of premature death from preventable illness. Add more than a quarter of a million people unknowingly spreading HIV and it is obvious to see that we are in the middle of an HIV/AIDS crisis. The cost in terms of money and lives will be staggering unless dramatic steps are taken immediately to expand prevention and treatment efforts.
We need a U-turn in AIDS policy at the local, state and federal level — and within every hospital, doctor's office and clinic. Our focus must be turned to prevention and treatment strategies. The CDC recently recommended that HIV testing become a routine medical procedure with a voluntary 'opt-out' provision. If patients learn their status early, they can live longer and benefit from effective counseling, prevention and treatment efforts.
We have a moral responsibility as African Americans to lead by example. We need to be urging our family members and political and community leaders to join public education campaigns to "know your status."
Why is it that with all we know about HIV/AIDS, and with all the scientific advances that have made this a more manageable disease, we have fallen short in diagnosing people and moving them into treatment?
We cannot wait to confront this challenge. Each day that passes without expanded prevention and treatment programs is another day when someone is passing the virus along unknowingly and another person has died because he or she has entered into treatment too late. It's time to take the blindfold off our national AIDS strategy. Until we do, our best prevention and treatment efforts will be a failure, and all the money we spend won't be able to roll back an epidemic that has already consumed the lives of more than 1 million Americans.
Harry C. Alford is the President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.