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City, state top docs speak to Black AIDS crisis

Friday, April 14, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Mema Ayi

The city and state’s top public health officials delivered a powerful, but simple message Thursday: The Black community is in the midst of an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As the kick-off event for the Let’s Talk, Let’s Get Tested Foundation’s fourth annual “I Need You to Survive” African American HIV/AIDS Walk and Bike Ride on May 20, Illinois Public Health Director Eric Whitaker and Chicago Health Commissioner Terry Mason spoke at the foundation’s media and sponsor luncheon at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Talking about HIV/AIDS, knowing your status, as well as talking about the disease and prevention are vital to the Black community, the doctors said.

“We need to vigorously mobilize our community. We need to eliminate the shame, erase the stigma and encourage testing,” Mason said. “Across the board we can do better. We have to do better.”

About 1,200 African Americans in Chicago are infected each year. Currently there are about 20,000 African Americans in the city living with HIV/AIDS. Seventy-nine percent of those infected in Chicago are African American women, Mason said.

Churches, Mason added, could help educate the masses on prevention. But some churches do not want to discuss the topic.

“(The Black church) is kind of a sore point for me. There are a lot of issues we don’t talk about, but we’re going to have a bunch of people in our churches on Easter,” Mason said. “But let’s do it as if our future depends on it. Because it does.”

Whitaker agreed.

“The church is one of the central elements we have to reach out to,” Whitaker said.

Prevention is key to reducing the number of Blacks infected since a vaccine or cure is at least a decade away, said Lloyd Kelly, executive director of the Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation.

Otherwise, the Black community nationwide will be lucky if it has only 40,000 new cases a year.“In America, AIDS is a Black thing and we had better understand it,” Kelly said.

In Illinois, the Black community is in state of emergency in regards of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Last year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched the Brothers And Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS (BASUAH) after looking at 2004 infection rates among Blacks in the state, said Blagojevich spokeswoman Cheryle Jackson.

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Blacks were just 15 percent of the state’s population, but more than half of the new HIV cases in 2004. More than 70 percent of those are Black women, Jackson said.

“When Blagojevich saw the numbers, he felt compelled to do more at the state level,” Jackson said.

Both doctors stressed HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease.

Jackson said strides have been made in the treatment of the disease, no longer making it a “death sentence” for those infected.

“This is really affecting young African Americans, but there are ways to avoid becoming a statistic in the first place,” Jackson said.

Prevention education, especially to young people, could be the key to reversing the trend, said Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown, who also attended the event.

“We are all links in the chain of success in the eradication of HIV and AIDS in our community,” Brown said. “It’s very important that we educate each other. We have to help our young women and men understand that they need to protect themselves.”
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