February is Black History Month in the United States, and of particular interest is the HIV/AIDS epidemic that affects African Americans the most in this country. However, fear may be related to prevention as has been discovered in the HIV infested the African nation of Zimbabwe, according to a new study. The United Nations HIV-AIDS Program (UNAIDS) and the Zimbabwean Ministry for Health and Child Welfare sponsored this important research.

The country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic was considered one of the worst in the world, but the rate was almost cut in half from 1997 to 2007, when it went from 29 percent of the population to 16 percent. There is growing recognition that primary prevention, including behavior change, must be central in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Researchers with Imperial College London said citizens of Zimbabwe were motivated to change their sexual behavior because of improved public awareness of AIDS deaths and a subsequent fear of contracting the HIV virus. Educational programs are to credit for shifting people’s attitudes about having multiple sexual partners and that have increased the acceptability of using a condom during casual sex.

Other factors contributing to the drop, and that distinguish Zimbabwe from its neighboring countries, include a well-educated population and stronger traditions of marriage, the researchers said.

In the United States, Black HIV/AIDS Awareness in its eleventh year of commemoration. In 2007, blacks accounted for almost half of people living with HIV infection in the U.S. Socioeconomic issues such as poverty, limited access to quality healthcare and HIV prevention education have all been linked to the high rates of infections in the black communities. Blacks make up 13% of the US population, Blacks account for about half of the people who get HIV and AIDS.

In 2006, black men accounted for two-thirds of new infections (65%) among all blacks in America. The rate of new HIV infection for black men was six times as high as that of white men, nearly three times that of Hispanic/Latino men, and twice that of black women. Also, the rate of new HIV infection for black women was nearly 15 times as high as that of white women and nearly four times that of Hispanic/Latina women.

Although new HIV infections have remained fairly stable among blacks, from 2005 to 2008 estimated HIV diagnoses increased approximately 12%. This may be due to increased testing or diagnosis earlier in the course of HIV infection; it may also be due to uncertainty in statistical models. At some point in their lifetimes, 1 in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV infection, as will 1 in 30 black women.

By the end of 2007, an estimated 233,624 blacks with a diagnosis of AIDS had died in the US and 5 dependent areas. In 2006, HIV was the ninth leading cause of death for all blacks and the third leading cause of death for both black men and black women aged 35 to 44.

Great strides have been made in terms of educating the public, but as the statistics show, much more work needs to be done. This crisis affects all of us, directly or indirectly, and it will take all of our efforts to defeat it.

Like other communities, African Americans face a number of challenges that contribute to the higher rates of HIV infection.

Sexual risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, with a partner who also has other sex partners, or with persons at high risk for HIV infection can be common in some communities.

Injection drug use can facilitate HIV transmission through the sharing of unclean needles. Casual and chronic substance users may be more likely to engage in unprotected sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

African Americans continue to experience higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) than any other race/ethnicity in the US. The presence of certain STDs can significantly increase the chance of contracting HIV infection. A person who has both HIV infection and certain STDs has a greater chance of infecting others with HIV.

The socioeconomic issues associated with poverty, including limited access to quality health care, housing, and HIV prevention education, directly and indirectly increase the risk for HIV infection and affect the health of people living with HIV.

Lack of awareness of HIV status. In a recent study of men who have sex with men (MSM) in five cities, 67% of the HIV infected black MSM were unaware of their infection.

Sources: Public Library of Science and Black AIDS Day

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.