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National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Reminds Us of the Deep Costs of Inequality

Feb. 7 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, an annual event that promotes the testing, treatment and prevention of a disease that disproportionately affects Black communities in the United States. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of new HIV diagnoses overall. Black women account for an estimated 6 in 10 new HIV diagnoses among women in the United States. If current trends hold, 1 in 2 Black American men who have sex with men, including self-identified gay and bisexual men, will become HIV positive in their lifetimes.

These grim statistics underscore the significance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It grew out of a collaboration among Black advocacy groups to stop the spread of HIV in their communities. At the time that National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was first recognized, in 2001, the nature of HIV infection in the United States was shifting. African Americans made up a growing number of those newly diagnosed with the virus, as well as those dying of the disease. At the same time, new antiretroviral medications to treat HIV had become available, promising to make HIV a chronic, manageable illness. For some communities, it worked.

But those treatments were expensive and, as activists predicted, access to them among Black communities was likely to be low. Scientific progress met American racial disparities and exacerbated inequality. This history shows us that biomedical interventions such as antiretrovirals to treat HIV or the vaccine against the coronavirus yield some progress in the fight against epidemic disease, but do little to alter the underlying inequities that make some communities more vulnerable to illness in the first place.

Since AIDS was first identified by doctors in 1981, African American AIDS activists have been key players in the fight against the illness. Like many of their White counterparts, African American AIDS activists promoted HIV testing and taught others to stop transmission of the virus through condoms and clean needles. But they also addressed AIDS in the larger context in which people found or put themselves at risk for HIV. In this way, their activism was rooted in a vision of health justice — one that aimed not just to stop HIV, but to combat the social ills and inequities surrounding it as well.

One of the country’s first Black AIDS service organizations was founded in Philadelphia in 1985 by Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer, an infectious-disease nurse, and Wesley Anderson, a public health worker who had experience tracking sexually transmitted infections. Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues (BEBASHI) focused particularly on fighting HIV/AIDS among poor and working-class Black women, whose lives were destabilized by deindustrialization, the contracting welfare state and the militarized policing of their communities.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post