By SELENA SEABROOKS
The Dallas Examiner
As of 2019, approximately 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of people with HIV, according to Centers for Disease Control estimates. While new infections decreased 8% from 2015 to 2019, they remained stable among Black communities. In 2020, African Americans were 7.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Recently, the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy at HHS commemorated National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day by hosting a webinar, Live with Leadership: A Conversation Commemorating National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The conversation highlighted the importance of health equity, community engagement, a syndemic approach to infectious disease, and the intersection of mental health and HIV.
The event was moderated by Dr Timothy Harrison, Principal Deputy Director of the OIDP. Guest speakers included Kaye Haynes, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Infectious Diseases and Director of the OIDP; Harold Phillips, director of the HHS Resources and Services Administration’s HIV/AIDS Bureau; and Ashley Cason, creative partner of the I Am A Work of ART campaign, a community-informed campaign designed to encourage people with HIV who are not on treatment to seek care, stay on treatment and achieve viral suppression by taking antiretroviral therapy.
Obstacles to medical care
Black communities have made significant progress in reducing HIV/AIDS. Despite this, ongoing concerns about racism, discrimination, and mistrust in the health care system still affect whether Black people seek or receive HIV prevention services. These issues reduce the likelihood of Black people engaging in HIV treatment and care, according to the CDC.
Phillips summarized the progress made to end the HIV epidemic. She stressed the importance of getting people with HIV into medical care and treatment. She also discussed the barriers for Black and African-American communities to obtaining treatment.
“Things like housing and transportation, mental health, employment, and quality of life indicators give us an opportunity to really think comprehensively about the things that sometimes get in the way of good medical care,” Phillips said.
Harrison referred to the Federal Implementation Plan of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and discussed how it added additional areas of concern, such as racism and other “isms,” and their effects on public health and how they complicate efforts to end the HIV epidemic.
“Racism is a public health problem,” added Hayne. “Homelessness is a problem for our community. Racism, all isms, sexism. These are still factors we work on every day.
The disproportionate effects of disease and viruses on the black community raise another concern.
“It’s all interconnected when we look at HIV/AIDS, when we look at hepatitis, Mpox, very often we’re talking about the same communities,” Hayne said, “And with Mpox, looking basically at our African American and Hispanic community, Latino community, looking at our communities left behind”.
Cason said it is essential to partner with different organizations from different communities to make resources available to every person of color and cultural background. He stressed the importance of engaging the community and building a strategy to directly address the community and get feedback.
“They tell you exactly what they need, exactly what they want, and they listen and they take it into account,” Cason commented, “In the end, HIV is affecting everyone.
“Having all of us come together to represent the variety of cultures and races and all the isms of people that exist today, this is the only way we will be able to bring everyone together to truly fight for the cause of ending HIV epidemic and reduce the stigma that is in all these communities”.
Prioritize mental health
The speaker spoke about the challenges presented by mental health. Mental health has challenged the ability to provide comprehensive HIV prevention services and people’s willingness to receive those services.
“Mental health has been a part of President Biden’s unity agenda and will continue to be a focus of some of the administration’s work to make mental health services more available,” Phillips explained, “As African Americans in this country, we continue to have a lot of work to do in recognizing the impact of trauma on our daily lives and how we move and relate to our lives and navigate through our lives.It is a world where for 400 years it has not been built for us.It was built to keep us down and limit our access and ability.
“We still have a long way to go and we can’t take our foot off the pedal,” added Haynes, “We still have some hurdles and a lot of intentional work to do.”
Cason spoke about the importance of prioritizing mental health and shared her story of being diagnosed with HIV at 15.
“I went through deep depression, and had suicidal thoughts, and that went on for a few years, and mental health and HIV actually go hand in hand as many people who have been diagnosed with HIV or any other condition they start to experience depression, loneliness. You have many different thoughts, you think no one wants to be around you, no one will want to be with you, you won’t be able to have children. All this stigma is literally what sends us into depression because we start thinking about all the things negative, which is not even true.
Hope for the future
Despite the challenges, significant progress has been made in the Black community in reducing HIV/AIDS.
“HIV is no longer a death sentence. By thinking holistically and comprehensively about what it means to live with HIV,” Phillips said.
Harrison acknowledged the disappearances of Dr. Don Smith and Janet Cleveland from the CDC.
“Two African American women who have been warriors in the fight against HIV for many years,” she said, “remind us of the importance of why we are working to end the HIV epidemic and why we are here today.