Awareness Campaign On HIV/AIDS Begins

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Obama administration began a five-year, $45 million media blitz yesterday to spark awareness about HIV infection and AIDS, saying that Americans have grown complacent about the deadly illness even though it represents "a serious threat to the health of our nation."

The campaign, Act Against AIDS, will include public service announcements, advertising on trains, buses and other modes of public transportation, text messages and a Web site, http://NineAndaHalfMinutes.org, a reference to the frequency with which people are infected.

"There is a complacency . . . a false sense of security and a false sense of calm," said Kevin Fenton, director of the national center for HIV/AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Every 9 1/2 minutes, someone's mother, someone's daughter, someone's father, someone's friend is infected."

Fenton said the aim of campaign, at a cost of $9 million a year, "is to put the HIV epidemic back on the front burner, on the radar screen." But the program is being criticized as inadequate by a leading HIV/AIDS nonprofit group.

"There are approximately 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV/AIDS today. More than 300,000 of these individuals have never had an HIV test and therefore do not know their HIV status," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "A $45 million communications plan, no matter how well-intended, will do little to help identify those 300,000 infected individuals who may unknowingly be infecting others."

Fenton said the campaign will initially target a group that nonprofit organizations overlooked for years as the disease spread: African Americans. Black people make up slightly more than 12 percent of the population, but they represent nearly half of new HIV infections and nearly half of Americans living with the disease, according to the CDC. One in 16 black men will be infected with HIV in his lifetime, along with one in 30 black women.

A separate phase of the awareness campaign will target Latinos, who represent 15 percent of the country and 17 percent of new infections, according the CDC statistics. The rate of new infections among Latino men is double the rate among white men, and the rate among Latino women is four times that among white women.

Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes said the District is of particular concern. A recent study by the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration that showed 3 percent of District residents have HIV or AIDS.

The rate was 6.5 percent for black men in the District and 2.6 percent for black women. Fenton said an estimated one in five people who have HIV are not aware of it.

To help get the message out, the White House and CDC will work with black interest groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 100 Black Men of America and the American Urban Radio Networks.

Twenty-five years ago, skeptics questioned the National Council of Negro Women's conference on HIV/AIDS. Today, the answer is clear, said Dorothy I. Height, a civil rights icon and president emeritus of the council.

"Here we are today with African American women being 15 times more likely to be infected than white women in our country," she said. "We want to be able to talk about this as we talk about jobs, as we talk about housing, as we talk about civil rights. We all have a responsibility to break the silence and speak out about this disease."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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