Passing the Test

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passingAIDS is no longer a new problem. But it remains one of the greatest health problems in Black America.

Although treatment breakthroughs over the last decade and a half have dramatically lowered AIDS deaths for the U.S. as a whole, Black Americans are often not reaping the benefits of these medical advances. An HIV-positive Black person has roughly double the chance of dying as an HIV-positive white person of the same age. Even in the era of effective treatment, AIDS is still one of the leading causes of death in the Black community.

This new report by the Black AIDS Institute helps explain why. Twenty-five years after the discovery of a test to diagnose HIV infection, well over 100,000 Black Americans are still unaware that they are living with HIV.

This report describes the devastating consequences of inadequate testing. Because so many Black Americans don’t know they are infected, the virus continues to spread—silently, but surely. And because many Black people are diagnosed with HIV late in the course of their infection, their risk of dying is much greater.

Changing this state of affairs isn’t just the responsibility of the federal government or our health care system. While these institutions have a critical role to play in promoting testing—and this report details what they need to do—each one of us has a job to do, too.

When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was living with HIV, Black America began a long-overdue conversation about AIDS. In 2009, though, we hear a lot less about AIDS—on television, in the newspapers and in our daily lives. With the decline in public discussion about AIDS, it’s hardly surprising that HIV testing rates among Black Americans have stalled or even begun to decline over the last decade.

As this report emphasizes, Black America needs to become re-engaged and re-energized about AIDS. Every Black person needs to know his or her HIV status. Those who are at highest risk should be tested annually. And we should be offered an HIV test every time we seek medical care.

Unless Black America joins together to make knowing one’s HIV status a social norm in our communities, the AIDS problem is only going to get worse. When life-saving HIV drugs are available, that would be more than a tragedy. It would be an historic blot on all of us.

This report includes recommendations for action by Black America, by President Obama, by public health agencies and medical providers, and by the private sector. HIV is preventable and treatable. But first it has to be diagnosed.

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