It’s been nearly 20 years since the United States observed its first National HIV Testing Day on June 27, 1995. But because Black people are still contracting the virus at higher rates than other groups, advocates say folks still need to get tested.
“The thing that we know about HIV is that the earlier you know your HIV status, the longer you can live. That is fact,” says Rae Lewis-Thornton, an activist who’s been advocating for HIV prevention and care for over four decades.
Lewis-Thornton says that even today, decades after the virus was first discovered in the 1980s, “testing is even more incredibly important because you can’t get treatment if you don’t know your HIV status.”
About 560,000 people in the U.S. found out they contracted the virus in the 1980s when the epidemic started. Black people were among those most affected.
Sadly, not much has changed.
Lewis-Thornton, who found out she was living with HIV after donating blood in 1987, says technology has become so advanced and by using it, “we really can save someone’s life.”
“We’re squandering this technology. It took them almost five years to develop an HIV antibody test. We’ve come a long way from 1985 when testing became available,” Lewis-Thornton says…”Then, it wasn’t even available then for general testing. It was available for blood supply. And so the point is that we needed this technology. We have it. And now we need to put it to use.”
Dr. Sherry Molock, an associate professor at George Washington University who examines the development of HIV prevention programs in African-American faith-based communities, agrees that HIV research has advanced.
“With the advent of new medications like PrEP, HIV is now a manageable disease but it’s still important that people get tested regularly and engage in safe sex behaviors,” Molock said in an email to Word In Black.
Molock, who also researches HIV risk in sexual minority men (SMM), or gay and bisexual men, says while rates of infection are decreasing among this group, “HIV is still disproprotionately impacting Black youth. Black SMM are less than 1% of US population but represent 26% of new HIV cases.”
It’s no secret that Black women are also disproportionately impacted by the virus. Despite making up less than 15% of the U.S. female population, Black cisgender women account for nearly 60% of new diagnoses.
And Black trans women account for 46% of new diagnoses among transgender women.
Molock believes it’s important for Black folks to get tested, and if they’re HIV-positive, to get treated, but she also recognizes the individual and structural barriers to doing both.
“Stigma, fear of disclosure of sexual identity, concerns around violation of confidentiality, costs of tests, and location of services” are just a few of the reasons why some people find it harder to access healthcare.
“Folks may not realize that HIV risks are higher in both Black heterosexual and LGBTQ youth and that homonegativity beliefs and policies increase risk,” Molock says. “Changes have to be made not only at the individual level but at community and structural levels as well.”
According to a poll conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation in 2014, a portion of Black folks have made it a priority to know their status.
The data shows that 76% of Black people over age 18 reported that they’d been tested for HIV, compared to 58% of Latinos and 50% of white people.
Still, Lewis-Thornton says testing for the Black community is a must.
“We still have more HIV cases. Whether you’re gay or straight, that doesn’t matter. Male or female. And we’re not in care right away. And we’re not virally suppressed,” she says. “And if you’re not virally suppressed — which is really the real piece — when you’re not virally suppressed, you’re still at risk for HIV-related health issues and you can infect somebody else.”
Join the Conversation
Word In Black is continuing the conversation about the state of HIV among Black people. Join us on Twitter Spaces for “HIV in the Black Community” on Monday, June 27 at 5 p.m. ET, as activist Rae Lewis-Thornton, researcher and professor Dr. Sherry Molock, and other advocates in the field share solutions for prevention and care.
Check out our YouTube video “HIV in the Black Community: What We Know & Resources for Us” for more information on HIV and the resources available for those affected.