Phill Wilson, Black AIDS Institute Poised to End AIDS Epidemic

Shantella Y. Sherman | 7/5/2012, 2:59 p.m.

As the International AIDS Conference prepares for its first gathering in America since the ban on HIV-positive travelers was lifted by President Barack Obama, Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, is positioned to chart the course of testing and treatment negotiations among lawmakers, physicians, and social workers and the millions of African Americans living with HIV and AIDS. Wilson represents a slowly disappearing vanguard of warriors battling as hard the misconceptions of HIV preventions, treatments, and access as the stigmas associated with them. In the first of a two-part series, Shantella Y. Sherman talks one-on-one with Wilson about the challenges and victories of his 30-plus year battle to end HIV and AIDS in the black community.

It only takes the slightest mention of HIV and AIDS to move the quiet reserve of Phill Wilson's voice to a fervent crescendo. At 56, Wilson has witnessed a metamorphosis among political and medical bodies which once struggled to classify the virus and produce proven and affordable treatment options. He has watched the infection go from a bizarre white, gay man's disease to a near pandemic among people of color - particularly African Americans. He is neither softened nor hardened by statistics that ebb and crest, but remains resolute at continuing the fight for equal access and an eventual end to the epidemic. Of great concern for Wilson, as D.C. prepares to host the 2012 International AIDS Conference this month is the city's rates of infection.

Wilson notes that the District's epidemic HIV levels - while a point of concern - offer an opportunity for residents to speak truth to power and hold leadership responsible.

"The rates are more about D.C.'s poor leadership, not its transient population as some speculate since long-time residents are the heaviest portion of the infected population. Part of the numbers being high is the bizarre political place that D.C. occupies. Taxation without representation undermines the ability of city agencies and health workers to fight HIV and AIDS and the city has not had the type of leadership on this issue that it could have from the health department in its history," Wilson said.

However, Wilson said that even with the precarious leadership and financial deficit, the city has managed a "robust response" to testing and treatment in some areas.

"Some major changes took place under former Mayor Adrian Fenty's leadership with the health department and under Gray's current leadership as well. I believe the epidemic in some areas does rival and even surpass rates in developing countries, but there has been a lot of tremendous work in an attempt to turn that around," he said.

"Those labors are becoming evident and now the focus should be on a sustained effort. If this current effort is sustained, we will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This conference will allow us to shine light on both the dangers and opportunities in D.C. today," Wilson said.

Still, the numbers nationally for new HIV cases among African Americans give rise to concerns that messages of prevention, testing and treatment are missing their targets in black communities. Wilson suggests that the lack of services may be due in large part to the taciturnity of those most in need.