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Fighting AIDS in black community requires educating our young

Published: Sat, August 4, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

One of my best friends died from complications of AIDS in San Diego, Calif., three years ago. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1992, and died at 57 in June 2009.

He spent his remaining years trying to educate the public about the disease and searching for a cure.

I wondered how the battle was faring against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and the virus that leads to the disease, especially within the black community.

A recent email from the Black AIDS Institute was alarming, and I wanted to share some of the information with you to let you know the battle to end AIDS is far from over, despite years of research and billions of dollars dedicated to ending this plague.

According to its website — www.blackaids.org — the Black AIDS Institute, based in Los Angeles, was founded in May 1999, and it claims to be the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the U.S. focused exclusively on black people.

Among its financial- resource partners are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the website says.

Its mission is to stop the AIDS pandemic in black communities by engaging and mobilizing black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront HIV.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people under age 30 represent about four of every 10 new HIV infections each year.

Also, at the AIDS International Conference in Washington, D.C., last week, attendees learned that AIDS is graying.

By the end of the decade, the government estimates, more than half of Americans living with HIV will be older than 50. Even in developing countries, more people with the AIDS virus are surviving to middle age and beyond, according to an Associated Press story.

“But nowhere is the [AIDS] epidemic more virulent and voracious than in young black men who have sex with men, among whom the number of HIV infections increased 48 percent from 2006 through 2009,” according to the institute. The institute used CDC stats that ended in 2009, the last year for such a study.

“This growth has been exacerbated by the failure to provide adequate information to young people about their sexual health,” the institute’s email says.

“We should be ashamed of this failure to protect young people from the epidemic of HIV/AIDS,” Phill Wilson, the institute’s president and CEO, said in that same email. “We need massive investments in community education, in HIV science and treatment literacy programs and in peer patient navigation services that link individuals to the care they need — and we need to act on our convictions.”

The institute proposes these steps to reduce the devastating toll HIV/AIDS is having in the black community:

Increase access to sex education, with appropriate lessons on sexual health.

Insist that public schools teach students about safe sex, and proactively provide access to condoms and all appropriate forms of prevention and treatment.

Introduce HIV/AIDS testing to teenagers, reminding them to visit a primary-care physician regularly and to ask to be tested for HIV.

Increase the focus on pregnant young women, to reduce the number of children born with HIV/AIDS, as well as their partners. The virus can occur during pregnancy, and without treatment, around 15 percent to 30 percent of babies born to HIV- infected women will become infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery.

Nicole Ware-Winford is the disease-intervention specialist with the Youngstown City Health Department who handles HIV cases for Mahoning, Columbiana and Jefferson counties. Trumbull cases are handled by the Akron Health Department, she said.

She told me the city health department offers HIV/AIDS testing from noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays at the department’s headquarters at Oakhill Renaissance Place, 345 Oak Hill Ave.

There is no charge for HIV/AIDS testing, and it can be done confidentially or anonymously, she added. There is a $20 fee to test for other sexually transmitted diseases.

“If a person can’t make it those days, testing can be set up by appointment,” she said. The department offers pre- and post-test counseling and distributes free condoms. To set up an appointment, call 330-743-3333, ext. 241.

Ware-Winford says the two most important things a person can do to reduce his or her risk of getting AIDS is to limit partners and use condoms every time when engaging in sexual activity.

Teen Straight Talk, 1393 Youngstown-Kingsville Road, Vienna, also touts abstinence as an effective lifestyle choice and another way to combat STDs. To find out more, go to the organization’s website at www.teenstraighttalk.com, or call at 330-539-6040.

“We have achieved reductions in the rate of infections among newborn children and older people,” Wilson writes in his email. “Now, it is our responsibility to take care of our future and to act on behalf of young people who need access to information, prevention, and treatment to rid HIV from our future generations once and for all.”

Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly column. You can contact him at ebrown@vindy.com.

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