Black community leaders respond to harrowing findings in HIV study

Marc Loveless of The Coalition for Justice and Respect discusses the results of study on HIV in black communities | Credit: Adeshina O. Emmanuel Jr.

Alarmed by the results of a new study, social service groups and city officials are urging HIV prevention and care initiatives to address high HIV prevalence in black communities.

The study released today by the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Office of HIV Behavioral Surveillance evaluated the infection rates, sex and drug behaviors and prevention practices of Chicago’s gay men, and showed harrowing trends amongst gay black men in the city. The study was conducted last year and was reported last month in the Daily News.

“The information gathered is extremely important because it reported findings that are alarming about how our African American communities are responding to the HIV epidemic,” says Alicia Ozier, Executive Director of the Westside-based TaskForce Prevention and Community Services. A press conference announcing the study's results was held at TaskForce's west-side headquarters today.

 Nearly 600 gay men were tested for HIV in the study.  HIV prevalence among black men tested was 30.1 percent, compared to 12 percent for Hispanics and 11.3 percent for whites.  Two-thirds of HIV-positive black men did not know they had the virus—while half of the Hispanic men in the study were unaware, and only a quarter of white men were unaware of their HIV status before testing.

"As African Americans, we find ourselves at the same point of disappointment as Dr. Martin Luther King did in 1963 in Birmingham over the lack of participation and compassion of liberals and progressive members of society in the quest for civil rights," says Marc Loveless, Project Coordinator for the Coalition for Justice and Respect, a civil rights organization servicing Chicago’s black gay and lesbian community.

Loveless says stigma in the black community against gays and lesbians, as well as misinformation about HIV prevention and contraction contribute to high HIV prevalence.

He also cited a lack of government funding and institutionalized racism as a reason for high rates of HIV amongst blacks.

“In the HIV services realm as a whole, African American agencies, service providers and advocates have not been financed and supported as well as mainstream or white mainstream organizations have been. So it's stigma involved but [racism is a factor too],” Loveless says.  “It may not be intended to be [racist] but this is what it looks like and this is what it is.”

Among those in the study who had not been tested for HIV in the previous year, the most prevalent explanations given by them for not being tested was that they were afraid of getting a positive result or they saw themselves as being “low risk”.

“The idea of low risk is a game of HIV Russian roulette.  In our entire African American community—men, women and children can no longer afford to spin the wheel of chance,” says Ozier, of the TaskForce.

Black community groups must take a leading role in dispelling the myth of low risk factors relative to HIV, in collaboration with federal, state and local agencies Ozier says. 

She stressed the pertinence of “culturally-based” HIV prevention, intervention and social service programs tailor-made for black communities.

Christopher Brown, Assistant Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health says his department is looking into new avenues of HIV prevention and care.  He believes the battle against HIV must be multi-pronged, and specialized to fit each particular group’s needs and problems.

“I believe that what works for one community may not work for another community," Brown says.

“We can’t just look at condoms or tests. We have to be embracing multiple challenge and intervention strategies. I also believe we have to stay on the cutting edge of [technology],” Brown says.  “We’ve got to be able to search, develop and implement strategies that really address what’s driving this epidemic and why people are engaging in behaviors. And then look at the technologies to intervene so if someone has engaged in a risky event, there’s something before or after that can stop the transmission of HIV.”

Keith Green, a Psychiatry Project Director for the Cook County Health and Hospitals system thinks steps should be taken to address the full scope of sexually transmitted infections and that trends involved in treatment recommendations should be changed.

“We have to look at care, not just about HIV, but about the treatment of sexually transmitted infections that put us as higher risk for HIV. We also need to look at the recommendations for treatment of HIV,” says Green.  “Currently we’re recommending people be treated at a certain point in their virus. However, if we have a higher community prevalence or higher community viral load, we need to be looking at treating people as soon as we know that they’re HIV-positive."

Ald. Ed Smith (D-28) says people should protect themselves and hold themselves accountable for their own health, and that the HIV problem will not improve as long as “people are doing the same thing.”

“We’ve been talking about this for years. Years and years. And I’m really appalled that the numbers really haven’t gotten that much better. And all the education, all the dollars that have been spent—people are still doing the same thing,” Smith says. “There are no supermen and superwomen when it comes to HIV.  Anyone can get it.”