Black HIV/AIDS forum reveals hope behind grim statistics

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In this era of color coded-terror alerts, intrusive airport security screens, air pollution advisories, and the devastating effects of global warming, Americans are seemingly bombarded by potential threats literally coming from every direction. We have made it our priority to wage war against terrorism, and even Mother Nature, but have we neglected to ward ourselves properly against an even greater enemy?

Jeopardizing our fragile national security is the ever-increasing, real, and deadly threat of HIV/AIDS. If this threat were colorfully indicated by the four-tiered terror barometer, the African American community would be under a RED state of emergency.

Heeding the warning, on Tuesday, June 19, the Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Minnesota. In attendance was special guest speaker Gil L. Robertson IV, acclaimed journalist and author of the best-selling book Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community.

His compilation of 58 essays, written by Blacks from all walks of life, includes prominent figures such as U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, Rev. Al Sharpton, Patti LaBelle, Mo’Nique, Jasmine Guy, Hill Harper, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Randall Robinson and Omar Tyree. In this anthology, powerful Black voices articulate their honest and uncensored opinions about the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis in their lives and communities.

Robertson, along with a panel of experts that included African American AIDS Task Force Executive Director Gwendolyn Velez, Minnesota Department of Health officials Peter Carr and Mitchell Davis Jr., and HIV/AIDS survivors DeAndrea Jackson and Mark Jenkins, presented Not In My Family as a tool to initiate a community discussion about HIV/AIDS. Appropriately, moderating the evening was former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who is actively dedicated to the HIV/AIDS fight in Minnesota.

Within the Black community, HIV/AIDS has had especially ravaging effects. Unfortunately, only an approximate 25 percent of HIV-infected people know their status. The margin for error is great, as the following statistics may not accurately reflect the extremity of the epidemic.

Historically, almost 90 percent of the new HIV infections diagnosed in Minnesota have occurred within Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding seven-county metropolitan area, according to the Minnesota Department of Health’s 2006 Surveillance Report on HIV/AIDS.

That same report states that between 2004 and 2006 alone there were 925 new HIV/AIDS infections diagnosed in Minnesota, 35 percent of them being African American or African-born individuals. Amongst women, African Americans, and African-born individuals account for a whopping 57 percent of all new cases.
Adolescents and young adults ranging from 13-24 years account for 13 percent of all new cases; however African American and African-born youth represent 25 and 18 percent respectively. Girls represent 63 percent of these new cases affecting our Black youth.

Of people living with HIV/AIDS, 34 percent are African American or African-born. Again, a disproportionate majority (59 percent) of that group are women. These are very staggering statistics. HIV/AIDS is wildly disproportionate to the Black community, and even more so for women. It is shocking that this issue remains highly taboo and stigmatized.

Robertson promptly began the evening by reading a few excerpts from his anthology, highlighting an especially edgy passage written by comedian/actress Mo’Nique in her refreshing tell-it-like-it-is style.
As Robertson ended the reading, he offered his own heartfelt testimony of how HIV/AIDS has affected his family personally, further inspiring him to create this anthology. “AIDS hit home for me when my older brother contracted it 25 years ago,” he said. “Now we are finally addressing the issue.”

He admits that while AIDS remains “a social issue that has a lot of implications,” his expressed hope was obvious as he scanned the audience, pleased at the turnout. “I put together this book to encourage these types of community dialogues, to get it out there and enact some change.”

Panelist member Peter Carr expressed that same sentiment of hope as he listed a number of encouraging — although maybe not so relevant — statistics. Across the board, all cases of HIV/AIDS in the Black community are going down. According to Carr, new AIDS diagnoses among African American men dropped 15 percent (once again this number only reflects those who have sought out testing).

Although not specific to the Black community, all new HIV infections by way of drug use are down a significant 75 percent; mother-to-child HIV transmissions are down to less than one percent. Carr admits that while the fight against AIDS is improving, “Factors like racism, the associated stigma of the disease, and the lack of access to health care are all complicating the issue.”

Despite the barrage of statistics and terminology rattled of by the assorted executive heavyweights of the HIV/AIDS campaign, the most moving testimony of all was that of the two HIV/AIDS survivors; they told their emotional stories of the effect of HIV/AIDS on their lives.

Mark Jenkins learned he was HIV positive in 1991 while incarcerated. He dismissed the diagnosis until 1995, when he received the tragic news that 15 of his close friends had all died within a mere three months of being diagnosed with AIDS.

Immediately, he sought help and began a strenuous regimen, forcing him to consume nine pills three times a day; 27 pills was his daily dosage. Now healthier, Jenkins is effectively managing the disease in his life and is down to taking only two pills a day.

The most important thing to him is looking forward to his future and continuing to promote the acceptance of those within the Black community living with HIV/AIDS: “See a person’s future with HIV and not how they contracted it in the past,” he urged.

Deandrea Jackson marked her 29th birthday earlier this month. However, just on the horizon of turning sweet 16 she learned while away at Job Corps that she had contracted HIV. As any teenage would be, she was shocked, scared, and felt betrayed by her then-boyfriend who unknowingly transmitted the virus to her.

This 16-year-old was further distraught after she was told she would be unable to bear children as a result of having this disease. Tearful throughout most of her story, Jackson happily admitted that years later she was fortunate to marry and is now the proud mother of two healthy, HIV-negative boys. In her loving yet stern motherly tone she extended a warning to all of us: “Know your status and the status of your so-called ‘one,’ because your so-called ‘one’ may be the ‘one’ that infects you!”

The audience members, most of whom are activists to some degree in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, adamantly asserted their frustrations to the panel when the opportunity arose to finally raise questions and concerns. Generally, the lack of monetary support to effectively fight/prevent the disease on a grassroots level was the most common complaint. The executives sitting on the panel offered few answers or condolences to the many outspoken workers/volunteers.

Twice, Carr admitted that he shared their frustrations but he said, “the money just isn’t there; we won’t have any funds to distribute for a while.” In the meantime, some HIV/AIDS programs continue to suffer losses, and some will inevitably completely lose their funding.

The panel faced the firing squad. While doing so, the embarrassing disparities within the system were exposed. However uncomfortable this may have felt, acknowledging the flaws proved to be one of the most pivotal moments of the community dialogue. Why?

Because, despite the messy financial tug-o-war, tedious politics and recycled proposed legislation, there seemed to resonate a deep sense of duty and determination that members on both sides of the panel genuinely expressed. By Sharon Sayles Belton’s closing remarks, the auditorium echoed in agreement that the forum was useful in enabling the exchange of information and providing some much-needed attention to the HIV/AIDS cause in Minnesota.

That evening succeeded in educating the community about the real issues surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis and reminded us that we can never afford to neglect the work that still needs to be done.

For testing information on how to get involved, contact the Minnesota AIDS Project at 612-341-2060 or www.mnaidsproject.org; Minnesota Department of Health at 651-201-5414 or www.health.state.mn.us/hiv; Center for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-311-3435 or www.cdc.gov/hiv; African American AIDS Task Force at 612-825-2052 or www.aaatf.org; or go to the Federal AIDS Website at www.aids.gov.

Caroline Joseph is a Hamline University student interning at the Spokesman-Recorder. She welcomes reader responses to caroline.joseph@hotmail.com.