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Today, as the Black community recognizes the 12th Annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we stand at the crossroads of heightened awareness, education, and potential eradication. To understand the magnitude of being in such a positive position, it is imperative that we examine how far we’ve come and how close we find ourselves to alleviating the stranglehold that HIV/AIDS has held on our communities.

SEE ALSO: HIV/AIDS In The Caribbean

According to data compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers are staggering:

African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States (US). Despite representing only 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2009, African Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in that year. Compared with members of other races and ethnicities, African Americans account for a higher proportion of HIV infections at all stages of disease — from new infections to deaths.

In 2009, Black men accounted for 70 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all Blacks. The estimated rate of new HIV infection for Black men was more than six and a half times as high as that of White men, and two and a half times as high as that of Latino men or Black women.

In 2009, Black men who have sex with men (MSM) represented an estimated 73 percent of new infections among all Black men and 37 percent among all MSM. More new HIV infections occurred among young Black MSM (aged 13–29) than any other age and racial group of MSM. In addition, new HIV infections among young Black MSM increased by 48 percent from 2006–2009.

In 2009, Black women accounted for 30 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all Blacks. Most (85%) Black women with HIV acquired HIV through heterosexual sex. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for Black women.

Long considered a “dirty little secret,” when the disease imploded in Black America, many people began to frantically gaze around in hopes of finding a reason why it could never happen to them; however, as HIV/AIDS began to affect our friends, families, and loved ones, the conversation began to shift from one of blame and hopelessness to one of compassion and purpose.

Though the numbers remain extremely troubling, with life saving treatments, community outreach, and education, African-Americans are living longer, healthier lives, and this pivotal breakthrough is due in large part to the tireless efforts of such organizations as the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.

The Institute, founded in 1999 by Phill Wilson, lives by the motto: “Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution.” It is a training and mobilization center focused exclusively – and unapologetically – on the preservation of the African-American community through the eradication of HIV/AIDS, offering technical assistance, conducting training, and interpreting public and private sector HIV policies.

Phill Wilson (pictured below) has lived with HIV for more than 30 years and considers access to health care and the support of loved ones to be integral to his continued good health. His own story is a testament to what we can — and have — accomplished in our communities when we arm ourselves with the educational and technological tools needed to aggressively face this illness without fear.

Motivated by his own life and the many friends he has lost to HIV/AIDS, Wilson has served as an advocate and educator in the Black community both domestically and abroad. He served as the AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles from 1990 to 1993 and the Director of Policy and Planning at AIDS Project Los Angeles from 1993 to 1996. He was co-chair of the Los Angeles County HIV Health Commission from 1990 to 1995 and has served as coordinator of the International Community Treatment and Science Workshop at the International AIDS Conferences in Geneva, Switzerland; Durban, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; Bangkok, Thailand; and Toronto, Canada.

In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Wilson shares his perspective on the stigma that cloaks HIV/AIDS and the shifting roles of the Black church and civic organizations as the fight to eradicate the disease continues:

NewsOne: HIV/AIDS has lived with an uninformed stigma attached to it — largely due to homophobia and religion. From your work on the ground, have you seen a shift in tone with the illness in the Black community?

Phill Wilson: The Institute’s primary mission is to engage Black leaders in efforts to confront HIV/AIDS. Certainly stigma undermines our ability to aggressively target this illness, but there are two things that can be said: We’re not where we need to be, but we’re not where we used to be.

We are slowly reducing the stigma and changing the conversation, and Black organizations and leaders have stepped up to the plate and embraced this cause, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network, and the National Council of Negro Women. We have engaged HBCUs from Savannah State, Howard University, and the Atlanta University Center. Each of these universities have national AIDS programs, which raise awareness in college students. We have a new energy and several politicians, such as Maxine Waters (D-California) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California), have been instrumental in laying the groundwork to bring the International AIDS Conference to the United States for the first time in 22 years.

NO: Unfortunately, the Black church has the reputation of being absent in the fight against HIV/AIDS. How have religious leaders responded to the work of the Black AIDS Institute?

PW: The conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS in the Black church is shifting. Religious leaders, such of Bishop T.D. Jakes (Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas) and Bishop Charles E. Blake (West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles), have really done tremendous outreach in their congregations.

NO: Have congregations been equally as responsive?

PW: Actually, I believe that the congregations’ movement to embrace this issue has influenced the shift in the leadership’s position. Sixty percent of Black Americans now know someone living with HIV/AIDS or someone who has died from the disease. Fifty percent of us have family members who are living with — or have died — from the disease. This has happened to Mothers, Fathers, sons, daughters; it’s now personal and urgent in the Black community and religious leadership is a reflection the congregation. That’s what great leadership is — responding to the needs and demands of your constituency.

NOIn 10 years, what role do you envision the Black AIDS Institute playing in the Black community and how far will we have come in our fight against HIV/AIDS?

PW: In 10 years, I hope that there won’t be a Black AIDS Institute, because we won’t need a Black AIDS Institute.

We stand in a deciding moment. We have recent scientific technology and educational tools to end the AIDS epidemic. Treatment is cheaper and more effective than it’s ever been before. We have prevention tools that are capable of preventing the transmission of the disease, and when individuals remain in treatment, the probability of transmitting the disease is reduced by 96 percent. We are at a point in time where all hands are needed on deck. We have the opportunity, but we will only get there if we all play our parts.

Our 8th Annual State of AIDS Report will be released today at 10:00 a.m. ET, and it details where we are and where we need to focus our energy.  There are three extremely important steps that we all must take:

  • Make sure we all know our HIV status
  • Advocate for universal access for people who have HIV/AIDS for a dual purpose:  a.) It’s in their best interest and b.) It goes a long way toward stopping the epidemic.
  • Continue to shift the conversation away from the blame/shame game to one of accountability and responsibility
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    The Black AIDS Institute is one of several organizations who have made tremendous strides in escalating HIV/AIDS awareness in the Black community, but they cannot do it alone. It is important that African Americans continue to be pro-active in our fight to ensure that the rampant proliferation of this disease becomes a distant memory. As Wilson so eloquently stated when speaking of our insurmountable strength as a people:

    “We are greater than slavery; we are greater than Reconstruction; we are greater than Jim Crow, and we are greater than AIDS.”

    To learn about the Black AIDS Institute, click here.