African-Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS despite recent medical breakthroughs that could reduce the number of infections.
And on Wednesday, Feb. 7, health advocates, politicians and community activists around the country ramped up their efforts to end the spread of HIV through numerous initiatives — all part of this year’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Some of the soldiers in this battle for life entered the foray after learning that they had contracted the virus, like Phill Wilson, who learned of his diagnosis in the 1987. But instead of accepting what was then considered to be a “death sentence,” he became an activist for his community, refusing to lay down and die.
Wilson, now 61, will soon step down from the California-based Black AIDS Institute which he founded in 1999, having served as its longtime president and CEO. His retirement, he said, serves as part of a new strategic plan in preparation for the next generation of Black HIV/AIDS response.
“In order for a movement to endure, there must be a plan for the future. Stepping down as the president and CEO of the Institute, where I have had the privilege of serving for the last 19 years, is bittersweet for me,” said Wilson he remembers being told by his physician that he wouldn’t live past 30.
When he and his partner, Chris Brownlie, both became HIV-positive, the AIDS epidemic had just emerged in the U.S. Wilson says few efforts seemed to focus on bringing Blacks together in a search for solutions. Many then viewed HIV/AIDS as a gay disease and outreach primarily occurred in white, gay communities When Wilson’s partner died of an HIV-related illness in 1989, he turned his grief into action.
“When I started doing this work in 1983, none of us could have imagined that a mysterious new disease, first identified at UCLA Medical Center, would become the defining health issue of our generation. The Institute is committed to doing everything in its power to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially in Black communities. The time is right and I’m proud of the work we have done over the last 19 years. That commitment is more important now than ever before. Our mantra remains the same: Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution,” Wilson said.
Institute board member David Munar, president and CEO of the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, said, “almost every milestone in the fight against AIDS domestically, and in some cases internationally, has been paved by the Black AIDS Institute, and that’s a credit to the Institution and its many supporters and affiliates across the country.”
“Every day is Black AIDS Awareness Day at the Black AIDS Institute,” said Raniyah Copeland, the Institute’s director of programs. “Our staff are of the communities we serve. We are Black men and women. We are Black people living with HIV/AIDS or at high risk of infection. We live, work, pray and play in the communities we serve. We don’t need to do ‘outreach’ because we are there 24/7.”
Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (Fla.-24) said Blacks must take control of their own future.
“We have to end the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS so that we can end the spread and it starts with taking the test,” she said. “We cannot continue to ignore the problem and think that it will go away. HIV/AIDS robs our communities of talent and productivity. The best way to fight the spread of the disease is to get tested, know your status and get the treatment you need if you are HIV positive.”
Held for the first time in 1999, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a national HIV testing and treatment community mobilization initiative targeted at Blacks in the U.S. and the Diaspora. According to the Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 1 in 8 people living with HIV in the U.S. remains unaware that they have the disease.
The CDC supports a range of efforts to reduce the risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV infection among blacks. For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/features/BlackHIVAIDSAwareness.