AIDS is a civil rights issue. While statistics show that most HIV testing is done in healthcare settings, health agencies have been trying for many years to figure out how to test in public venues – to reach out to the communities that are most impacted.
However, those African Americans and Latino communities, those who are hardest hit the HIV/AIDS epidemic, seem hesitant to test in public venues.
The latest example: of the thousands of celebrants who turned out Monday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, only nine people were tested for HIV/AIDS.
African Americans have the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. Compared with other races and ethnicities, they account for a higher proportion of HIV infections at all stages of the disease, from new infections to deaths.
Moreover, a number of challenges contribute to the epidemic in Black communities, including poverty, injection drug use, drug addiction, mental illness, limited access to health care, cultural barriers in health care.
To date, over 230,000 African Americans have died of AIDS related illnesses, nearly 40 percent of total deaths and of the more than one million people living with HIV, almost half are Black, and yet as a racial group, African Americans represent just 14 percent of the U.S. population.
Young African American gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are especially at risk of HIV infection. New HIV infections among African American women decreased for the first time in 2010.
Blue Williams, program Manager for the DREAM Project (Determined to Respect and Encourage African American Men), a program at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has been a certified tester since 2005.
Williams was one of the testers Monday and also was one of the testers at last year’s event.
“The number of people testing was just slightly higher last year, but having nine people getting to know their status is something to celebrate,” he said. “Large events seem to be daunting places to test. A lot of people are here, surrounded by friends or family feel embarrassed, have fear to get tested, or some just feel they are not at risk.
A 2009 survey by the Kaiser Foundation reported a fifth of Black Americans cite HIV/AIDS as the most urgent problem facing the U.S. In another survey, four fifths of African Americans believed that government spending on the disease domestically was insufficient.
The report said African Americans were the most aware about transmission routes, were the most likely to have been tested, were the most likely to say they knew someone who was living with HIV or had died of AIDS, and were the ethnic group that reported experiencing the highest levels of stigma.
Scottie Warren, a case manager for Volunteers of America in Oakland, was a tester at last year’s Art and Soul festival in Oakland, said that during the two-day event, his agency tested over 50 people, and there were three other agencies testing people as well.
Warren says he finds success with his personality, putting them at ease while conveying confidence in his knowledge, but ultimately getting them to see that testing is not a moral judgment or moral indicator, but a health decision.
He also notes that persons of color, including the Latino community that face the same issues and are the second largest population hit.
“People of color tend to test more at events if there is some type of handout, some incentive,” he said.
According to Civil Rights leader and former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, the importance of testing cannot be overrated.
“It’s sometimes daunting to want to take on something else, but nothing less, we just have to do it,” he said “We must accept responsibility for the growing epidemic and make HIV/AIDS education and prevention a priority.