It's been a big month in the fight against HIV and AIDS. On May 10, a panel of federal advisers gave a thumbs up to the first drug shown to prevent HIV infection; just five days later, a panel recommended approval of the first over-the-counter HIV test, which would allow consumers to screen themselves in the privacy of their own homes; and yesterday, some 45,000 New Yorkers reportedly raised over $6 million to aid in medical and social services required by those already living with the disease.
Among them were singer Keri Hilson and TV personality Wendy Williams, who each told The Huffington Post that, despite these advances, awareness is where the fight falls short, especially when it comes to African Americans.
"We've had an impact regarding awareness, but not enough of an impact," Williams said. "Any average 17-year-old right now is not even threatened by AIDS. The big bubble of fear is trapped within a particular age group, and I don't believe that it exists with high school kids and even some college kids," she said.
For Hilson, whose hometown of Atlanta was recently named one of six U.S. cities hardest hit by the global AIDS epidemic, the lack of awareness is even more sobering.
"I'm born and raised in Atlanta and I'm just learning this -- today, as a matter of fact," she said. "There's no way that we should be there and not know that and not have bigger support for those that are infected and affected."
Hilson points to stigma as a reason why more people aren't in the know, and Marjorie Hill, CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the organization benefiting from AIDS Walk New York yesterday, agrees.
"Individuals in communities of color are still challenged by the mistaken assumption that it's a white disease, it's a gay disease, it's not impacting communities of color. And African Americans in particular bear the overwhelming burden of HIV and AIDS in this country."
Shifting these misperceptions (and the risky behaviors that could accompany them) is the only way preventive measures like a vaccine or home test can have success, experts say.
"Exclusive reliance on a drug to prevent HIV or any sexually transmitted disease could actually result in a worse outcome, if those at risk don't understand how their own behavior affects treatment,” said Perry N. Halkitis, chair of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Psychology and AIDS, in a release.
Perry contends that Truvada, the HIV prevention medicine, is no magic bullet and must be combined with behavioral approaches if the U.S. is to succeed in reducing the spread of HIV.
In the interim, Hilson has vowed to spread the word in her hometown. "We need to do more to de-stigmatize it in Atlanta," she says. "We just don't see and hear about it like we once did. That's going to be my personal mission: to bring some of this love and some of this support and power and empowerment to Atlanta."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Truvada as a "vaccine," which is an inaccurate characterization of its effects.