As a Los Angeles physician who has treated people with HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic 25 years ago, I've had more than my fair share of painful experiences.
Today, with Blacks 10 times more likely than Whites to have AIDS, what pains me most is the fact that so many of us have never been tested for HIV or are not getting the right medications.
Without testing and proper treatment, Black America doesn't stand a chance against AIDS. Despite increased education and safer sex practices ... the incidence of HIV/AIDS is climbing in the Black community. African Americans now account for more than half of HIV diagnoses and AIDS-related deaths.
Sure, we can attribute the disproportionate impact of HIV to a number of injustices that we in the Black community experience — social inequalities, economic disadvantages and inferior medical care. But we cannot allow injustice to beget injustice and paralyze our efforts to end the Black AIDS crisis. It's time to fight back. Regardless of whether we think we're at risk, it is critical for all African American adolescents and adults to know their HIV status and to test often if they do things that put them at risk. And with today's rapid HIV tests, which no longer require blood samples and weeks of waiting for the results, a simple oral swab can deliver preliminary results in less than 30 minutes. Testing is usually free and is available not only at clinics and doctors' offices, but in shelters, churches, mobile vans and at street fairs, rallies and town hall meetings across the country.
The barriers to testing are coming down, so what are the 250,000 Americans who have HIV but don't know it waiting for? More and frequent testing can lead to early treatment and longer, healthier lives for African American HIV patients. Yet, in my medical practice, I still see too many people who are diagnosed in an emergency room at a late stage of the disease, when treatment options are limited and less effective. Worse still, I even have patients who think that taking HIV drugs is more harmful than the disease itself — a misperception that, sadly, many African Americans buy into because of their deep-seated distrust of the medical establishment.
A new study finds that a 25-year-old who is diagnosed with HIV today and receives proper antiviral treatment will live, on average, for another 35 years. The key is getting on — and staying on — the best anti-HIV medications available. Some new treatments have even been made into combo tablets in an effort to make HIV therapy as convenient as possible for HIV positive people.
While HIV testing and treatment are the most important things we can do to end AIDS, they're clearly not the only actions we must take to stop the killer virus in our midst. We must work together to shatter the denial and stigma about AIDS in our community. We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people living with HIV so they do not feel shunned, abandoned or alone. And we must shout together so that our leaders in city halls, state houses and in Washington, D.C. do their utmost to ensure access to HIV prevention and care services for everyone — Black, White, Asian, Latino, Native American — who needs them.
A tall order? Perhaps. But if we want to see our community free of HIV, it's one we must tackle.
Dr. Wilbert C. Jordan is the medical director of the OASIS Clinic of King/ Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. He has served as the medical director for the Minority AIDS Project since its creation and for the past 12
years has chaired the Black Los Angeles AIDS Consortium.