Who Knows? Black HIV/AIDS Day

04/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Remember the embarrassing non-response of Dick Cheney and John Edwards to Gwen Ifill's question about Black women with HIV/AIDS in the vice presidential debate in 2004? They had no idea. Today, the racial disparity in the impact of the epidemic remains shocking, yet the absence of shock is still palpable.

February 7 marks National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, reports the Centers for Disease Control. Among all race/ethnic groups, HIV prevalence is highest among Blacks, who account for a shocking 46% of the population living with HIV despite comprising just 12% of the population.

Preventing transmission of HIV in the Black population requires concerted efforts, because the disease is not narrowly concentrated in one group or associated with a single risk behavior: "Among black males, male-to-male sexual contact accounted for 63% of new infections; among black females, high-risk heterosexual contact accounted for 83% of new infections."

A few issues merit special attention.

Since the epidemic began, routine HIV testing and medical treatments in the U.S. have largely curtailed the spread of HIV from mothers to their children. Still, that requires good prenatal and preventative care. Shockingly, the perinatal transmission that remains is highly concentrated among Blacks, with 69% of all cases. Another 16% is among Latinas. The race-ethnic gap in perinatal transmission rates appears to be narrowing in recent years, but it remains more than 20-times higher among Blacks than Whites.

HIV/AIDS is also apparent - and unequally distributed - in U.S. prisons, where an estimated 1.5% of prisoners are HIV-positive. In prison, the Black AIDS death rate is almost three-times higher than Whites', and twice as high as Latinos'. Still, prison rape makes for great jokes; correctional officers aren't even shy about telling them in public.

The good news is prison deaths from AIDS-related causes are dropping. Because they are increasingly concentrated among older people - those over 55 - it looks like deaths reflect infections that predate current treatments. But infection puts many more at risk. Although the percentage of HIV-positive prisoners is not great, millions of people churn through the prison system, experiencing periods of high risk that may affect them forever.

The CDC coordinates a "National Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis among African Americans." Lots of places like these are having free testing to mark the day. Some educational materials, or promotions to mark the day, are here. A video discussion on "HIV/AIDS & the Black Woman" is here.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.