“The Voice” singer Jamar Rogers has been traveling to high schools and universities, lecturing students about the importance of practicing safe sex. He should know. He learned that he was diagnosed with AIDS following a six-year stint of using crystal-meth, sharing needles, and having unprotected sex. Now, he’s a spokesman for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign.
Rogers sees Feb. 7th, the 13th anniversary of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, (NHBAAD), with a mixture of despair and hope. He says the day is not only a time to recognize that Blacks continue to bear the greatest burden of HIV in the nation, but it’s also a time for lawmakers, leaders, and members of the community to look toward an end to the epidemic.
“There are still a lot of people who are at risk and engaging in risky behavior. By sharing my own story, I’m trying to tell people that it doesn’t have to get as bad as it got before I found out,” he told NewsOne. Rogers says that he had full-blown AIDS when he learned his status.
And he’s not alone. While only representing 14 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans account for half of all new HIV infections and almost half of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV.
While African-American women also continue to be far more affected by HIV than women of other races/ethnicities, recent data show early signs of an encouraging decrease in new HIV infections. The CDC is hopeful that this charts the way to a longer-term trend.
The statistics are grim for African-American youth, though. Young people between the ages of 13 and 24 represent more than a quarter of new HIV infections each year, 26 percent, and most of the youth living with HIV, 60 percent, are unaware they are infected, according to the CDC.
Young gay and bisexual men and African-Americans represent the group of young people who are most affected by HIV/AIDS.
In 2010, 72 percent of estimated new HIV infections in young people occurred in young men who have sex with men (MSM). By race/ethnicity, 57 percent of estimated new infections in this age group were in African Americans, according to the CDC.
“I really want our youth to know that HIV/AIDS is still around and our approach to educating youth about safer sex is not working,” he continued. “I’ve been approaching it from a self-respect and self-love point of view, saying, You know what? You need to know that you were born on purpose and with purpose. Once you know that you have a purpose, you are not willing to engage in risky behavior. I don’t know if my method is working, but I’m going to keep hitting the pavement and sharing it as much as possible.”
Donna McCree, associate director for health equity of CDC’s division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, said that everyone has a role to play in helping to reduce the rates. Getting tested is an important first step and the CDC helps visitors to its National HIV and STD Testing Resources website find testing facilities via zip code. She encourages everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 to know their status.
“This is an exciting time,” she told NewsOne. “We have more tools than ever to win the fight against HIV. For any of the tools to make a difference, we really have to commit to using them. We know now that people newly diagnosed with HIV dramatically reduce the risk of passing the virus to another person.”
But the down side is that African Americans are least likely to have medical coverage or to have the virus under control when compared to racial groups, McCree said.
“We have to work to ensure that HIV-positive African Americans are connected to and stay in effective care and treatment, which allows us to protect their health and the health of their partner,” she said.
She said that breakthrough treatments such as PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, could greatly help reduce the infection rate. It is a pill that people who do not have HIV take daily to reduce their risk of becoming infected. When used consistently, PrEP has been shown to be effective in MSM and heterosexually active men and women.
“But for these new medical breakthroughs to reduce new HIV infections, those that are at risk need to be aware of it and they have to be able to access care and use it consistently,” she said. “ So it’s very important that we get tested. That is the first step and Feb. 7th is a good day to remind everyone about the importance of getting tested and protecting ourselves and others from infections.”