The AIDS Epidemic

Last week two important news stories about AIDS hit the mainstream media. First, the Black AIDS Institute, an HIV/AIDS think tank released the report “Left Behind – Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS” in which it announced that the AIDS epidemic in black America is as severe as in parts of Africa. Then this past Saturday, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced it had underestimated the number of new HIV infections in the United States. In fact they estimated that approximately 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006, rather than the previous estimate of 40,000.

Given the report and the CDC’s new figures, which are especially enlightening when presented in tandem, it’s safe to say that AIDS is one of, if not the most, severe health epidemics that this country is facing.

What is perhaps most frightening about this news is the rate at which HIV/AIDS is appearing in certain gender and racial populations. Although African Americans only compromise 14% of the population, they accounted for 50% of the new HIV infections in 2006. In newborns, blacks accounted for 65% of HIV-infected babies. AIDS is also the leading cause of death among black women between ages 25 and 35. Black women are 23 more times likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women.

If you read “Left Behind” (or even just the Executive Summary for those of us with less time), it’s clear there are many pressing problems that need to be addressed if we’re going to solve this epidemic, or at the very least, prevent it from getting even worse. These challenges including protecting young people from infection, preventing HIV transmission among homosexual men, addresses drug use and HIV infection, and promoting optical medical outcomes for people living with HIV. But perhaps the most important is addressing the epidemic along the gender and racial lines in which it is presenting itself.

It’s also important to understand why we’re seeing certain populations affected more than others. Is it simply a lack of education? Is it the stigmatization associated with the disease which prevents people from taking action before it’s too late? My suspicion is that it’s indicative of a deeper-seeded problem with access to health care in this country. But without understanding the causes of the epidemic, it will be all but impossible to address it any long-term meaningful way.