Public health advocates have spent 20 years and millions of dollars trying to get more Black folks tested for HIV. But as I'm constantly reminded, nothing works better than old-fashioned role modeling and leadership by example.
Take James, my 19-year-old nephew.
He's heard all the arguments — a quarter of all people living with HIV don't know it; early detection not only stops the virus' spread, but gets you life-saving treatment. And he knows he's at risk, since half of the estimated 40,000 new HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed every year are found among African Americans.
But what got James ready to learn his status is something simpler: Actress Regina King's doing it, too.
King's one of a bevy of A-list Black celebrities who are taking public HIV tests in association with the June 27th National HIV Testing Day. The massive display of leadership-by-example is part of a community mobilization that aims to get one million African Americans tested in the next 18 months.
And this group is just the latest of a growing list of Black public figures doing their part to take the fear out of HIV testing.
Last summer, several Congressional Black Caucus members took tests on the steps of Capitol Hill. NAACP chairman and civil rights legend Julian Bond got tested during the organization's 2006 annual convention. Dallas' Bishop T.D. Jakes did the same during a World AIDS Day celebration at Potters House in December.
All of this leadership is crucial. More than a quarter million Americans are living with HIV and don't know it, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Not only are those people unable to protect their sexual partners, they are also decreasing their chances of surviving with an HIV infection by delaying medical attention.
African Americans accounted for 38 percent of all people killed by AIDS as of 2004, and HIV infection remained the second leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-old Blacks, as of 2002. This carnage comes at least in part because we are more likely to find out we are positive only once we get seriously ill — and that's the point at which treatment is much less likely to work.
Celebrities have a huge role to play in turning those numbers around, but they are not the only ones who can lead by example. We all have the potential to be HIV-prevention role models for those we love – particularly our youth, who accounted for a stunning 70 percent of new HIV infections among teens in 2004.
And taking the test today is easier than ever. Most testing sites now use "rapid testing," in which you simply swab your gums with a device similar to a Q-Tip and wait roughly 20 to 40 minutes to get the results. Finding a testing site is just as easy; just log onto the Internet at www.BlackAIDS.org to locate one in any zip code you choose.
There's an old saw about the wisdom of getting tested: The life you save might be your own. That's true. But given the power of leadership-by-example, you might also save the life of someone you love.
Regina King saved Sandra Bullock's life in Miss Congeniality II. She may very well have saved my nephew's life by taking an HIV test. For that I will be forever grateful.