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National day puts high black AIDS rates in Minneapolis spotlight
“Silence is death,” said J. Louis Thompson, HIV coordinator at The Aliveness Project. Thompson was one of several speakers at an event held at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Center as part of the 12th Annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7.
According to the CDC, 44 percent of new HIV cases in 2009 were African Americans, who made up only 14 percent of the U.S. population. In Minnesota, 2,342 African American and African-born individuals were living with HIV through 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Thompson, also a motivational speaker, unabashedly self-identified as HIV positive. He encouraged the mainly African American audience to talk about HIV everywhere, from the church, to the street, and even at family meal times. “Communication is life,” he said. “We have to confront the silence.”
Peter Carr explained the importance of getting tested. Carr is the STD and AIDS director at the Minnesota Department of Health. Early treatment not only improves personal outcomes, allowing people to live for years with the disease and feel well, but treatment also reduces transmission rates. Also, when people know that they have HIV, they often reduce risky behavior.
“The best thing is to know,” Carr said. One of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS is that after initial symptoms, such as a rash or fever, a person can be infected with HIV for many years without knowing it. By the time more serious signs of the virus appear, it has potentially spread to others and impacted that person’s prognosis. HIV is harder to treat the longer it remains untreated, Carr said.
The theme of this year’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was “I am my brother/sister’s keeper: fight HIV/AIDs.” The speakers, who represented several community service providers, touched on this theme as they encouraged listeners to both know their status and tell others to do the same. Free STD and HIV testing was available during the event.
Vivica Dennis from the Women and Family Network, an organization that works with HIV positive women, became emotional as she declared, “I am my sister’s keeper.” She admitted that she has lived with HIV for 12 years, a fact that has been difficult for her to share with others until recently. Dennis said that her motivation for sharing her status is to help others. When people know that she has HIV and see her living life well, it helps persuade them to be tested as well.
Becoming educated about AIDS and other STDs is another part of the strategy for preventing and halting the spread of disease, according to Neighborhood Health Source volunteer Drea Otterness. Amidst all the talk about sex on social media sites “no one is talking about safe sex,” she said. As a volunteer, she has the opportunity to educate her community about STDs even when it causes people to feel uncomfortable. “You can be embarrassed, but I’m still going to educate you,” she said.
Turning Point, a social services organization, and the Minneapolis Urban League organized the event, which was in its fourth year. Sponsors and supporters consisted of a number of community organizations, including Broadway Family Medicine Clinic, Neighborhood Health Source, The Aliveness Project, Open Cities Health Clinic, and the Minnesota Department of Health. Many of the organizations provide services that address different aspects of need, for example, mental health, medical and dental health, and HIV testing, education, and support.
Carr noted the variety of community organizations that participated and viewed them all as addressing different parts of the solution. “There isn’t a silver bullet to solving the AIDS crisis in the black community,” he said. Events like the one on Tuesday calls attention to the fact that AIDS has not in fact disappeared. The number of new cases a year has remained steady, Carr explained.
Lindsey Walker, vice president of the health ministry at Macedonia Baptist church, made a similar point about AIDS. “A lot of blacks fail to realize that it’s killing our brothers and sisters,” he said.