By Phill Wilson, Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute
I just returned from the XV World AIDS conference in Bangkok Thailand.
No matter where the international AIDS conference is held, it always ends the same way for me: I ask two questions: what did we accomplish, and was it worth it?
By many accounts, this meeting accomplished a great deal. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation gave $45 million dollars to the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Nelson Mandela pointed a much-needed spotlight on the dual epidemics of HIV and TB. The Thai government recommitted itself to the fight against AIDS in Thailand. And, surprise! – we finally realized that “leadership matters.”
But almost at every opportunity, this meeting missed the chance to talk about AIDS as it impacts African Americans. There were discussions about women, but no mention of the disproportionate impact AIDS is having on African American women. Black women in the United States are 20 times more likely to be infected with HIV than white women. 20 times. 73 percent of the new HIV cases among women in the United States occur in Black women – last year it was 64 percent.
There were presentations on drug users and prisoners. But absent from those discussions were talks about the high percentage of drug users infected with HIV in the United States who are Black, or the relationship between the mass incarceration of African American men and HIV/AIDS. There was a large discussion about harm reduction, a proven method of reducing HIV infection among drug users, that overlooked the relationship between the U.S. government’s needle exchange policy and rising HIV rates in U.S. Black communities.
One of the questions raised during the meeting was, “Where’s the AIDS vaccine?” But no one seemed to care that there is very little work being done to prepare African Americans, who are often suspicious of vaccinations and clinical trials, for a preventive AIDS vaccine.
It would not have been appropriate for the African American epidemic to dominate this international meeting, and African Americans can benefit from many of the discussions and accomplishments of this meeting, whether they explicitly mentioned African Americans or not. But it has been my experience that unless we are explicitly included, we are implicitly excluded. The absence of any substantive discussion about the African American epidemic was more than disappointing. It was an indictment of the African American response to this deadly disease.
One could blame these oversights on the conference organizers and say this is just another example of blatant racism. But that is an old and tired response. How often can we play the race card? Focusing exclusively on racism won’t save a single life, or prevent a single African American from being infected with HIV. Racism exists. It’s a bad thing. So what! Racism is not going away anytime soon and race bias or not, we have to figure out how to survive in the face of it.
Can and should AIDS conference organizers include African Americans more? Yes, but they won’t if we don’t push to participate. Can and should the government do more? Yes, but it won’t unless we advocate for it. Can and should corporations do more? Yes, but they won’t unless we use our economic muscle to motivate them.
The main reason African Americans were not represented to any large extent at this year’s AIDS meeting is because we have yet to respond to the AIDS epidemic in a real and substantive way. Very few African Americans are doing research on HIV/AIDS. Very few African American physicians are focusing on HIV/AIDS. Very few traditional Black organizations in the United States have made AIDS a priority that rises above lip service.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda provided a road map to turning the tide of HIV in Uganda that African American leaders should follow. Summarizing Uganda’s achievements in combating HIV/AIDS, President Museveni stressed that the reduction in prevalence of HIV in Uganda was the result of a broad-based national effort backed by firm political commitment and leadership. Uganda’s political commitment involved a wide range of partners, including religious, social and traditional leaders, community groups, non-profits, media (especially radio), and many other sectors of society. According to President Museveni, the key was forging a consensus on the need to stop the epidemic in his country – a fundamental step that has yet to be accomplished in the Black community in the United States.
The XV international AIDS conference is now history. Forty thousand people died from AIDS during the week of the conference. In the United States, the majority of the newly dead were Black. There are nearly 200,000 thousand African Americans living with AIDS and over 180,000 thousand dead from the disease. What will it take to mount a mass Black mobilization against AIDS?
The XVI international AIDS conference will be held in Toronto Canada, so the cost of attending should be much less of an issue than going to Thailand for African Americans. The incoming president of the International AIDS Society, the organization that sponsors these meetings, is Dr. Helene Gayle. Dr. Gayle has been a tireless warrior in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the African American community. We can start now to make sure we have a presence at that meeting. But I have to be honest, I care much less about whether or not we have a presence at AIDS conferences and meetings than I do about whether or not we are really doing everything we can do to stop the dying in Black communities.
It’s time for Black leaders and organizations to come together in a united, coordinated response to the AIDS epidemic in Black America. AIDS is a huge problem in our communities and we’ve been tinkering around the edges. It’s time for Black celebrities to step to the plate. (If I talk to one more Black celebrity who wants to raise money for orphans in Uganda or Kenya and hasn’t raised a dime to help fight AIDS in Chicago or Detroit, I will lose my mind). It’s time for Mrs. King, Jesse Jackson Sr., Kweisi Mfume, Dorothy Height, Marc Moriel, Elijah Cummings, Bob Johnson, Russell Simmons and all those folks who are named on Ebony’s list every year – and all those folks who aren’t, but should be – to issue a call to action and make a commitment to stop the spread of AIDS in the Black community by 2010.
So, was this year’s world AIDS conference worth it? I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, the answer will be determined by the actions taken by Black leaders, Black organizations, Black media professionals, Black academics and everyday Black folk across this country in the next weeks, months and years. For all our sakes, I pray and hope the answer is yes!
If not now, when? If not us – who?