Throughout my career as an actress and activist, I have learned that determination and focus are the most valuable tools in achieving success. And yet, in our fight against HIV/AIDS here in the U.S., we seem to have lost our collective focus. In fact, late last year, we learned that we have 40 percent more new infections in this country than we previously thought. This February 7, the 9th annual National Black AIDS Awareness Day, is the perfect time for us to recommit ourselves to defeating the AIDS epidemic here at home, as it continues to strike some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
The incredible increases in the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs and expanded testing and treatment throughout the country have, without a doubt, saved thousands upon thousands of lives, and prevented an incredible amount of new infections. But we cannot allow ourselves to rest on our laurels at this point. HIV is a tenacious disease that thrives on ignorance and complacency. Once we start thinking that we have defeated HIV here in the U.S., or that it is only a problem in the developing world, we begin to lose the fight.
Instead, we must turn a critical eye inward, and face the fact that HIV/AIDS has reached crisis levels among the Black population of the US. The statistics are startling. While making up 13 percent of the population, Blacks make up half of all new HIV/AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One analysis shows that a black male in this country has a 1 in 16 lifetime chance of acquiring HIV and for black women it is 1 in 30. The impact of HIV is greater among Blacks than any other racial or ethnic group, with an HIV incidence rate that is 7 times higher than Whites, and almost 3 times higher than Latinos. As a country, we should be not just startled by these numbers, we should be ashamed.
The reasons for this severe racial disparity are complex; certainly, a lack of community resources, poverty, homophobia, the plight of incarceration, limited access to health services, and education all play a part. Additionally, the impact of racism and discrimination in this epidemic cannot be ignored. Still, there are a number of steps we can take to begin to fight back.
We should begin by reinvesting in the behavioral prevention programs that we know work. During the last several years, even as the epidemic took its increasing toll on communities of color, the federal budget for prevention actually shrunk. We will never beat HIV/AIDS if that is the approach we take. Instead, we need significant investment in prevention and an end to ideological obstacles that feed the epidemic.
A good place to start in restoring integrity to our domestic prevention efforts is in ending ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. SIECUS' research shows that blacks are likely disproportionately affected by these programs: the region with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS among Blacks is in the South which not coincidentally also receives nearly half of all federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds. In fact, of the top ten states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS among blacks, all but one are located in the South. And what do these programs do to help stem this disease? They purposefully deny people the information they need to protect themselves from acquiring HIV when the ideals of abstinence and marriage fail. And they fail. Often. But, these programs are prohibited from discussing the effectiveness of condoms in preventing infection or discussing them in a positive light in any way, even for young people who may be sexually active. At the same time, we know that a comprehensive approach to sex education works and reduces the sexual risk behaviors that lead to HIV infection and the federal government must begin to invest in this approach.
Education is a necessary weapon in our arsenal to defeat HIV/AIDS, but on its own is not wholly sufficient. We must also continue to break down the old barriers that have prevented progressive groups from joining efforts and working together. Poverty, sex education, and HIV/AIDS organizations all have a stake in defeating the HIV epidemic in the Black community and we must work together if we are to be successful.
National Black AIDS Awareness Day was established to increase awareness in the Black community on HIV/AIDS prevention and testing, and also to decrease the stigma around the disease. We honor that today and raise our voices to say change is needed. Thankfully, President Obama has pledged his support to tackle the domestic epidemic and to begin this important work through a public-private partnership that creates a National AIDS Strategy. Make no mistake, this important plan must address the issues of prevention and the increasingly racial path this disease is taking.
Gloria Reuben is an actress, singer, and member of the Board of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.