The theme of the 11th annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7 was: “It takes a village to fight HIV/AIDS.”
They got that right.
Since the earliest days of the epidemic, people from all walks of life and HIV statuses have come together to tend to the sick, demand policy changes, fight for easier access to life-saving medicines and educate the public about how HIV is transmitted.
But today, 30 years into an epidemic that has taken the lives of 12,492 people in the Commonwealth alone, the villagers are tired. The same populations most vulnerable to HIV infection in 1981 are those most vulnerable today: gay and bisexual men, black Americans, and injection drug users. And Boston remains the second hardest-hit community in Massachusetts after Provincetown. Factor in a widespread belief that HIV is an easily managed chronic condition coupled with sex education that ranges from negligent to non-existent, and you have the recipe for an unending epidemic that robs our families, our communities and our health economies of energy and resources.
Between the two of us, we’ve put in 25 years fighting the spread of HIV. We’ve seen some successes in Massachusetts; the most dramatic would be the near elimination of perinatal HIV transmission. But surely the most intractable characteristic of HIV today is that it is a black disease. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control released data highlighting the racial disparities of HIV in America. In 2008, black men and women were diagnosed with HIV infection at eight and 19 times the rates seen in white men and women, respectively.
Clearly, something is missing from the public conversation and HIV policy decision-making process when a single group is so hard hit. And we think we know what that missing ingredient is: the black voice. When it comes to changing policy, it’s the people who make the most noise who have the ear of decision makers. And we have not created enough spaces for straight black men, specifically, to come together to talk about their sexuality, and we certainly don’t have a contingency of people advocating for black men on Beacon Hill.
So where do we go from here? We think it’s time to bring a discussion to the “village.” Let’s take the conversation to the street corner, the bus stop, the barbershops and hair salons. Let’s step into church services and community meetings, reach out to the local senior centers and Ys and Boys and Girls Clubs. The onus for making a change in the community lies in the hands of that community. If it truly does take a village to end HIV, let’s help make that happen.
Monique Tula is the vice president of the HIV Health and Policy Institute at the AIDS Action Committee, located in Egleston Square. Larry Day is a long-time JP resident and manager of HIV health promotion at AIDS Action Committee.