The Ohio AIDS Coalition Recognizes Black History Month

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is now almost 34 years old.  As the epidemic has changed over three decades, so too has the face of HIV.  Blacks represent approximately 12% of Ohio residents yet account for half (49%) of all new HIV infections and 45% of all Ohioans living with HIV.  The rate of new HIV infections among blacks is almost 8 times higher than among whites with more higher rates of new infections among persons 24 years of age and younger.

If the current rate of infection continues, nationally 1 in 4 black gay men will become HIV-positive by the time they are 25 and 1 in 2 black gay men will be living with HIV by the time they are 35.  Overall, 1 in 16 black men will be infected in their lifetime.  For whites, this number is 1 in 102.  We can’t help but ask “why.”  Why are blacks so disproportionately affected by HIV?  Why isn’t the public talking about these overwhelming figures?

It’s a lot more complicated than just statistics and numbers.  HIV/AIDS has never simply been a disease, but has been inseparably tied to historical social injustices, homophobia, misogyny, racism, homelessness, poverty, and transphobia.  And these each singularly, and collectively, have been visited upon members of the HIV community.

The war against HIV is not fought solely in hospitals and bedrooms, but in courtrooms, streets, and the statehouse.  We will not win the war without also addressing the intersectionality between race, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and how systems perpetuate discrimination and stigma within our communities of color and continue to drive the epidemic.

The Ohio AIDS Coalition (OAC) has a longstanding history of representing the voices of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and articulating a united response in the face of threats the HIV community.  From the beginning of the epidemic, people living with HIV have not only been persecuted for the disease they carry, but also for their association with the LGBTQ community, being poor, and being black.

We cannot afford to ignore the threat of HIV/AIDS in the black community.  We need to do better.  We need to increase access to quality, affordable healthcare for communities of color.  We need to increase HIV and STI testing.  Most of all, we need to address ALL aspects of HIV and not just the infection.  We need to promote workforce education and address homelessness.  We need to look to the future, leave our silos, and begin addressing the intersection of HIV and social injustices.  And here at OAC, we’re committed to that fight.

On HIV Criminalization

Last week the Director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition launched the first volley in a fight to end an historical anathema to the public health strategy to end the HIV epidemic.  Few people know this, but there are sections of our criminal code that make conduct of HIV positive persons a felony.  Loitering for example is a misdemeanor…  unless a person has tested positive for HIV, then it is a felony subject to imprisonment for years.  The natural reaction to this law is to not get tested, because if you haven’t been tested you can’t be convicted of a felony.  These laws were written in the mid 1990’s, a time of fear and a time when effective treatment for HIV was just becoming available.  Times have changed folks.

So here’s the thing, and there’s no getting around it.  A viral infection that can’t be transmitted by walking around or standing around (aka loitering) isn’t deserving of a two-year prison term.  Further, if someone is on antiretroviral medication, they can get their virus to an undetectable level, and are 96% less likely to be able to infect others.  Laws like these discourage people from getting tested for HIV, they discourage people from getting into treatment to suppress the HIV virus, and only create opportunity for passing HIV to other people.

Legislation from the seat of fear is never a public good.  The time of treating people with HIV as serious criminals, rather than encouraging people to get tested and access treatment and reach viral suppression, needs to end.  The Ohio AIDS Coalition is working to end that.

Read the letter here