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HIV/AIDS crisis among blacks often ignored
On Sept. 7 I reported on the "Silence is Death" report issued by Florida Department of Health to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among blacks and the growing threat of infection to Hispanics.
I knew as I began to write the story the night before that within 24 hours of its publication I would hear from the reader who calls me every time I write on this subject.
He never gives his name, but his message is always the same.
He starts out by yelling at me that health officials are saying HIV/AIDS is a black disease.
"Because of your stories, every time somebody looks at me they will think that I have AIDS because I am a black man," he shouts into the phone. "AIDS does not have a black face."
He's right, but in a way he will not acknowledge.
AIDS does not discriminate.
The HIV virus does not care what color a person's skin might be.
It will infect anyone, given the opportunity, with equal ramifications.
But what my caller refuses to accept - what has been proven by statistics gathered by local, state and national health officials - is the alarming fact the HIV virus is disproportionately infecting blacks and Hispanics at far greater numbers than whites given the size of those populations.
Put another way, the statistics gathered by the Florida Department of Health - including those submitted by private physicians who are required to report cases of HIV/AIDS they diagnose - indicate that one out of every 70 blacks in Manatee County has the disease.
For whites, the ratio is one out of every 797 people.
For Hispanics the ratio is one of every 298 people.
That's a lot of people with HIV/AIDS, a lot of people of all skin colors and ethnic backgrounds.
But here is where the numbers get scary.
HIV/AIDS is spreading fastest among blacks, Hispanics and in particular among black women and children.
"It is unacceptable that for 15 years in a row, HIV/AIDS has been the leading cause of death among black Floridians aged 25-44," wrote Dr. M. Rony Francois, Florida's Secretary of Health, in the "Silence is Death" report.
"It is time for us to mobilize communities and all those who have a stake in the epidemic to find innovative ways to reduce the associated morbidity and mortality," Francois said.
I do not know if my angry caller is aware that Francois, too, is a black man.
Or that Dr. Gladys Branic, director of the Manatee County Health Department, is a black woman.
Or that the "Silence is Death" report was prepared by the Black Leaders Advisory Committee.
These black leaders are committed to raising awareness of the high infection rate among blacks because they want to stop the virus from spreading, not because they think HIV/AIDS is a black disease.
It does not matter whether a white person, a black person or an Asian person shares a needle or has unprotected sex with someone who is infected, they are all equally at risk for infection. So, too, are the spouses in what they believe to be loving, trusting and monogamous relationships and marriages where the partner is not being faithful. And if people who engage in risky behavior don't know their status because they don't think AIDS can happen to them, then they could very likely be responsible for passing on the virus to others.
The only way to protect oneself - and those one loves - is to know one's status and to safeguard that status by being responsible.
And that test has nothing to do with skin color but everything to do with common sense.
Labels do not belong in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but those most affected are kidding themselves that the epidemic among blacks will just go away if they refuse to acknowledge it exists.
Or if they write it off as a racist campaign to lay yet another burden on the black man, as my caller so angrily accused.
I hope he is reading this column.
I would like to say to him again what I have said every time we have talked but I fear he has not heard - yes, you are right, HIV/AIDS is not a black man's disease, but as long as the black community stands silent and refuses to address the fact that the virus is the leading cause of death among blacks 15-44, the numbers of infected will keep growing.
There is one other person who I hope is reading this column - he is a well-known black leader in this community, highly respected and highly educated. His reputation as a leader is well-earned and well-deserved.
But on this subject he has chosen to be silent because of taboos and the misguided belief that HIV/AIDS is a gay man's disease.
He, too, refuses to hear the story behind the statistics.
The "Silence is Death" report is meant for him and others like him who refuse to address this health crisis from their positions of power at the podium and pulpit.
I can only hope they heed the words of author James Baldwin that appear on the cover of the "Silence is Death" report:
"You cannot fix what you will not face."
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