Dozens of Chicago-based healthcare providers, activists and city officials gathered Sept. 1 on the Inner Circle Services Center's rooftop patio for a sunset reception hosted by the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN). The topic at hand: how to unify and mobilize to stem rising HIV rates in the Black community.
While Black Americans represent only 14 percent of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The HIV infection rate among Blacks was almost eight times as high as that of whites. And young Black men who have sex with men (ages 13-29) are at even greater risk: Their rates of infection nearly doubled between 2006 and 2009.
"For Black folks, this needs to be a wake-up call," said Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. "Now, people get pissed off when I say this, but I say it because statistically it's trueAIDS in America today is a Black disease. … And if we don't step up, then no one else is going step up for us."
Wilson was one of the event's keynote speakers. Others included: Vanessa Smith, executive director of the South Side Help Center; Yaa Simpson, community epidemiologist and bioethicist for TACTS (Association of Clinical Trials Services); U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Chicago); and Chris Brown, assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health's STI/HIV Division.
While guests braved 90-degree heat and enjoyed complimentary wine and hors d' oeuvrescourtesy of Aged 2 Perfection wine tastings and Chef Gina Worthyspeakers set to task identifying how to help Black communities.
Networking was a common theme. Louis Spriggins, a BTAN coordinator, opened the evening with a recap of BTAN's progress. An arm of the Black AIDS Institute, BTAN educates and trains Black treatment advocates across the country. About a dozen Chicago organizations partook in two free three-day sessions this summer, and similar initiatives have launched in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Jackson.
Pilot cities will be given one year's worth of funding to identify and address one specific pressing need in their community. The hope is that programs developed through BTAN will carry on once funding ends and be replicated across the country.
Rep. Davis said the national connectivity BTAN is fostering will be essential in addressing HIV disparities. "Power is far more effective when it's collaborative," he said. The congressman shared lessons learned from his time in Congress.
"There are things that individuals can do, but usually individuals alone don't exercise very much power," Davis said. "It really takes a team to be victorious. It takes a large number of people in our country to influence the behavior of legislators, the behavior of decision-makers, the behavior of people who control money."
Treatment and research literacy were highlighted as possible solutions; several speakers said a simple lack of HIV/AIDS education in Black communities was one of the main factors leading to higher rates.
There are 20,000 people currently living with AIDS in Chicago, and another 1,000 diagnosed each year, Simpson said. In 2009, half of all new cases were identified in Black people, and the majority of women in Chicago living with HIV/AIDS are Black.
"We've got a pandemic, an epidemic, a situation," she said. "That means we've got to get past Tuskegee. I said it. We've got to get past this phobia that Black people cannot be in research or cannot be research."
From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, Black men in Tuskegee, Ala. Study participants were told they would receive free healthcare from the U.S. government, while in fact they were exposed to syphilis and never treated; more than 100 died. The Tuskegee experiments left long-lasting fears of scientific and health research in many Black communities.
Simpson insists that educating communities about the science behind HIV and proper research procedures can alleviate these fears. She believes that tracking disease transmission, disease intervention and medication adherence can give advocates tools to stop HIV's spread.
"We need to talk about how reservoirs work in people who are positive, and more importantly, people who are positive and taking medications, so we can lower that viral load," she said. "If one of the partners is positive and the other isn't, the person that is positive and taking medication may not spread the virus. That is functional curing."
While Davis agreed that comprehensive education is key, he said it's difficult to find funding in Congress.
"A lot of people don't believe in education because they don't believe that you can change behavior," he said. "They think that you're throwing away money when you put it into educationally designed activities. But we know that we have reduced sickle cell. Sickle cell is not nearly the problem that it was 30 years ago."
The ability to treat the disease already exists, Wilson said. People can prevent exposure through proven successful methods such as condoms, dental dams, vaginal microbicides and behavior modification.
"AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence that it once was," Wilson said. "Ask me how I know. I've been living with HIV for 30 years now and full-blown AIDS for over 20 years now. The treatments are available that can keep us alive. … There's no reason why we should see the kinds of numbers we're seeing among young Black men who have sex with men in this country. That is absolutely unacceptable. We need to step up to the plate."
Wilson closed the evening with a call to action. He pointed out key Chicago officials, advocates and activists in the audiencemaking each stand up and waveand insisted that people meet each other and begin cross-organizational projects.
"The day will come when this epidemic will be over," he said. "And when it does, it's important for them to know that we were not all modest, that we were not all cowards, that some of us dared to care in the face of it, some of dared to fight because of it, and some of us dared to love in spite of it. Because it is in the caring and the fighting and the loving that we live forever."
Guests continued to network and exchange ideas well after the night's official programming ended and the sun had set.
To learn more about the Black AIDS Institute's BTAN initiative and how to get involved, visit: http://www.blackaids.org/
Rep. Davis invited guests to his free public birthday party before he left for the evening. He said there'll be catfish and blues at the Septton, Chicago Business. 11 event, to be held at Homan Square Garden, 3333 W. Arthington, 4-9 p.m.