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International AIDS Conference - July 22-27

Black People Have Pretended it Was Someone Else's Problem
By Phill Wilson, president/CEO, Black AIDS Institute

phil wilson

( - Thousands have descended on Washington, D.C. for preparation for the 19th International AIDS Conference, which opened July 22. Leading up to the conference, on Monday, July 16th, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a drug called Truvada for the purposes of pre-exposure prophylaxis. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is when a person who does not have HIV uses anti-HIV medications to prevent acquisition of the virus. That means even if you are exposed to the virus, you don't get infected and therefore don’t get sick.

The FDA got this one right. PrEP will be a very useful tool in stopping HIV infections among gay and bisexual men. And for the most at-risk population on the planet, Black gay and bisexual men -- and particularly young Black gay and bisexual men -- this decision happened not a moment too soon.

But here's what I'm worried about. We know that the science shows that PrEP works for gay and bisexual men. We know that in some of our urban communities nearly half of Black men who have sex with men are already HIV positive. We know that there has been nearly a 50 percent increase among HIV cases among young Black men over the past 3 years. But we do not know if our community will embrace this new tool.

The challenges for us are: Will we get the information that will allow us to learn what PrEP is and what PrEP is not, who should be taking it and who should not, where to find it and how to use it?

Sometimes I think that if the cure for HIV was in the air, Black folks would hold our breaths.

The reason why the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington is so important is because it is time for us to stop playing with HIV. Every step of the way, Black Americans have resisted protecting ourselves and saving our lives. In the beginning of the epidemic when we could have saved lives, Black people pretended like it was someone else's problem. When the first treatments (as crude as they were) became available, we resisted making the treatments available even for folks for whom it was appropriate. I suffered thru the horrible days and nights of AZT. AZT was a terrible drug. But I’m alive 32 years later because I stayed alive long enough for the next generation of drugs to become available.

When needle-exchange programs were proven to stop transmission of HIV without increasing IV drug use, Black Americans developed a not-in-my-backyard attitude and resisted needle-exchange programs at the expense of thousands of lives. When the new protease inhibitors became available, again we were slow to respond. Now we're being presented with a host of breakthrough biomedical interventions, yet around the country we are obsessing on issues that, while important, are not paramount.

Every racial ethnic community in America is making progress toward the end of the AIDS epidemic except Black people.

During the Holocaust when the Nazis were rounding up the Jews, people just stood by and watched it happened not realizing that people like them were being rounded up as well. For years Black people have watched everybody else dying from AIDS, not realizing that we were infected as well. In Nazi Germany people remained silent until it was too late. Will we?

The prominent Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Adolph Hitler, Martin Niemöller, said it like this:

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."

Black America take notice: Elvis (and everybody else) has left the building. We are just about the only ones still left around. And nobody else seems to give a damn. Federal dollars for HIV are down; corporate dollars to fight HIV are down; foundation dollars to fight HIV are down.

This is the last flight out. We choose to not get on board at our own peril. Black Americans have to build our own infrastructure and capacity to beat this thing. And we can't do it if we don't have the latest science information. Nobody can save us from us, but us. This is our problem. Our people. Our solution.

In this issue, a team of about 30 members of the Black AIDS Delegation, a group consisting of members of the Institute's Black Treatment Advocate Network and graduates of the African American HIV University (AAHU) will attend the conference. These activists have committed themselves to building the infrastructure and capacity required to end the epidemic in Black communities nationwide.

Here, a cross-section of BTAN fellows -- from Philly to Jackson, Miss., to Los Angeles -- share their thoughts about why attending is so important, what they hope to learn from the conference and how they intend to be different when they return home.

Again, the 19th International AIDS Conference runs from July 22 through July 27th. Get there if you can.

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