Black people with AIDS are seven times more likely than whites to die from the disease
From the epidemic's start 25 years ago, black people have been disproportionately more likely to test positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than half of all people now diagnosed with HIV in the United States are African American, and black people with AIDS are seven times more likely than whites to die from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
AIDS activists, researchers and people with HIV attribute the continuing rise in infection rates among African Americans to reluctance by many blacks to address the disease as their own.
"This is an issue we can no longer afford to ignore," said Myisha Patterson, the NAACP's new national health coordinator, who organized the panel discussion and has pledged to make HIV a priority. "We must promote personal dialogue on this issue, encourage testing, and support additional programs that will literally save our lives."
Many NAACP leaders and members referred to AIDS as America's new civil rights movement. Some blamed the alarming numbers on the faith community's reluctance to get involved.
"The universal church has been a destructive force on HIV, saying that AIDS is a sin, a punishment from God," said Pernessa Seale, executive director of Balm in Gilead, a New York-based nonprofit that works to get churches to provide AIDS education and support. "It is 25 years later, and we are still fighting that myth, that lie.
"If there is a sin, it is a sin that we the adults have allowed our children to have this 100 percent preventable disease."
According to federal research, 66 percent of youths diagnosed with HIV are African American, and black women make up two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses among women.
"It's a crisis we should have seen coming, but as a community we were slow to respond," Wilson said during the panel discussion. "You must know your HIV status."
Kim Smith, a Chicago doctor who treats AIDS patients, pointed to two black celebrities to demonstrate the importance of being tested.
She told the hundreds of people gathered for the panel discussion that basketball star Magic Johnson got his HIV test early, so he was able to get treated right away.
"He looks as healthy as anyone you have seen," she said.
But 31-year-old N.W.A. rapper Eric "Eazy-E" Wright did not get tested until he was sick. He found out he had AIDS when he was in the hospital on a breathing machine, and shortly after, he died of AIDS in 1995, she said.
"The contrast is getting tested," she said. "Be like Magic."
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