Emergency Call

How AIDS Is Hurting Black Communities

From heart disease to diabetes to asthma, the black community has always led the nation in health problems. Therefore, activists say, prevention must become part of a larger discussion about health and the social forces that threaten black community wellness.

Elcock, who serves as community cochair for the New York City HIV Prevention Planning Group, adds, "The whole family gets disrupted. Mom is dead, Grandma is raising those kids, and she hasn't got a clue herself. She may know her 'baby' died from HIV, but not what an adolescent or a little one might need. So she's raising, for me, that next level of HIV incidence—that adolescent whom nobody has talked to."

The black church presents another challenge. The Balm in Gilead, a Manhattan-based coalition of 10,000 black churches and ecumenical groups, has been trying to engage religious leaders for 10 years. Founder Pernessa Seele says she's seen a marked jump in the spiritual community's response in thelast three years. Last week, Balm launched a national multimedia initiative, "The Black Church Lights the Way," urging people to get HIV tests.

"It is essential for the black church to be involved in our community, because in our community we mobilize around the pulpit," Seele says.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean Women's Health Association's Verna DuBerry warns that everyone must remember that in New York City, African American communities greatly overlap with Caribbean and Latino communities. The understanding of AIDS in Harlem may be only at 1980s levels, but Brooklyn's Caribbean community still will not even name the virus. DuBerry says most people don't admit they are positive until they are on their deathbeds, and then their families call it cancer or pneumonia.

Johnson, however, is confident in the community's proven ability to fight uphill battles. "We're not powerless over this virus," he insists. "When you look at the numbers, it looks like we're powerless. But we can stop spreading it."

Shrugging, he acknowledges the obvious. "We are behind."


AIDS AND BLACK NEW YORKERS, A SIX-PART SERIES:

Part I: Emergency Call by Kai Wright
How AIDS Is Hurting Black Communities

Part II: Black, Gay, At-Risk by Kai Wright
Homophobia, Racism, and Rejection Fuel Rising Infections

Part III: The Tuskegee Effect by Kemba Johnson
For Blacks, a 28-Year-Old Study Is One of Many Barriers to HIV Prevention

Part IV: Double Jeopardy by Kai Wright
In NY State Blacks Rank Highest Among HIV-Positive Inmates

Part V: Black Women and HIV by Sharon Lerner
Rising Infection Rate Reflects an Age-Old Gender Imbalance

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