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An American Tragedy
New data show the terrible toll that HIV/AIDS is taking among African Americans.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

DR. JEFFREY CROWLEY, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, has been tasked by President Obama with developing a national AIDS strategy within the next year. It's long overdue and desperately needed. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide the starkest evidence yet that an American tragedy is underway.

While HIV/AIDS is an indiscriminate killer that cuts through every socioeconomic group in the United States, statistics from 2006, the latest available, show that the epidemic with no cure is devastating the African American community. Although blacks make up just 12 percent of the population, they account for 46 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS. There are now an estimated 56,300 new HIV infections annually, 45 percent of them by African Americans.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) continue to bear the brunt of the epidemic, with about 30,000 becoming HIV-positive each year. But young black men are hardest hit. "Young black MSM aged 13-29 . . . account for more new HIV infections than any other age or racial group of MSM," said Kevin Fenton, head of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC. "Among MSM overall, there were more new HIV infections in young black MSM aged 13-29 than any other age or racial group of MSM."

As we learned earlier this year, the story in the District is no less grim. A report from the city's HIV/AIDS Administration revealed that African Americans account for 76 percent of the cases here. In total, 4.3 percent of the black population in the District is living with the disease, as are 6.5 percent of all black men.

These numbers should shock the conscience -- and spur action. The national strategy being crafted for the president must include efforts to destigmatize the disease and to get people tested and into treatment. HIV testing must become a routine part of medical care (akin to testing for diabetes, for instance). Work with African American civic organizations to stress the importance of testing and treatment must be accelerated. But none of this will work if all people from all ages and backgrounds don't know or refuse to learn their HIV status. This head-in-the-sand mentality cannot continue. Mr. Obama is leading by example. To mark HIV testing day last month, the White House released video that showed the Obamas getting tested during a 2006 visit to Kenya. In the District, free testing is available. Go to http://www.doh.dc.gov/hiv to find out how to follow the president's lead.

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