aids-ministry_web.jpgDespite readily available information on how not to become infected by HIV/AIDS, black women continue to acquire the disease at a rate higher than any other segment of the American population.

The primary behavior that exposes black women to this disease (unprotected sex) is also a factor in this population’s disparate acquisition of other sexually transmitted diseases, including Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, which are on the rise in the black community, especially among black women, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That black women are being infected with STDs at so high a rate is particularly distressing to Barbara Ann Fussell, who said the message about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, including the importance of practicing safe sex, is apparently falling on deaf ears.

Fussell said the deadly trend will not reverse course unless and until black women begin to love themselves. Fussell, an affable woman with a hearty laugh, speaks from experience. She has been living with the HIV virus and an AIDS diagnosis for more than 20 years.

Data released by the CDC indicate that although blacks represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for almost half of all reported Chlamydia and syphilis cases in 2007 and a whopping 70 percent of all gonorrhea cases reported in the nation.

The CDC report blames the disproportionate numbers on black women’s inadequate access to quality healthcare and STD prevention and treatment.

But Fussell said the real culprit is the way black women feel about themselves.

Fussell is a member of Mt. Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, which has been at the forefront of engaging the black church in the  prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in the black community for several years. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. George McRae, was instrumental in the establishment of the now-defunct M.O.V.E.R.S. (Minorities Overcoming the Virus through Education, Responsibility and Spirituality) program, and has actively sought to erase the stigma that many people accuse churches of perpetuating against people infected with HIV/AIDS.  

The Rev. Richard Clements leads a confidential support group offered by the church for people infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. After issuing a friendly warning before a recent discussion of the group that this was “not a Bible study,” Clements told the South Florida Times that the discussion could become “raw.”

Clements sought the group’s wisdom regarding the CDC numbers.

The consensus in the group of 12 – including elderly women, a young couple, a 54-year old man who had been living with the virus for more than 20 years and a grandmother concerned about how to discuss sex with her young granddaughters – was that educating young people early about their bodies, sex and how to protect themselves is the best way to curtail the rising numbers of sexually transmitted diseases among black women.

The group’s discussion about scare tactics to prevent young girls from acquiring STDs led to another consensus that the intention of imparting education to youth should be to inform them. But if the information scares them into safe behavior, so be it.

Fussell is adamant about being open and honest with the young people in her life. The presence of her teenage niece at the Tuesday night support group was evidence of her conviction.

While the new CDC figures relate specifically to STDs, the figures on HIV/AIDS in the black community are alarming as well.

In 2005, blacks accounted for 18,121 (49 percent) of the estimated 37,331 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States in the 33 states with long-term, confidential, name-based HIV reporting.

Of all black women living with HIV/AIDS, the primary transmission category was high-risk heterosexual contact, followed by injection drug use.

Fussell said her misguided belief that she needed a man, and that “a piece of man was better than no man at all,” led to her being exposed to the virus in 1983. She was diagnosed with the virus in 1987 when she entered her first of several stints in drug rehabilitation.

“I was an intravenous drug user, I was promiscuous,” she said of the behavior that likely led to her acquisition of the virus.

Fussell said when a stranger broke into her apartment, presumably to rape her, her quick thinking allowed her to escape unharmed with her two small children. In an ironic twist, however, the neighbor to whom she ran was the person to introduce her to drugs.

“I was infatuated with him because it seemed like he cared about me so much,” she described. “I found out this man used to chew bricks for breakfast. All I knew was that he and his friend would go in the room and he would be this mean person. When he came out he would be sweet. I found out that they were shooting dope.”

Retrospect allows her to see that this tough guy filled a gaping hole in her life left vacant by her absent father.

“I met my dad for the first time when I was 40 years old,” she said, adding that the two now have a healthy relationship and speak often.

She recalls with ease the dates that define her life.

“May 31, 1974, we were in an apartment. I snorted some heroin for the first time, me and my girlfriend. She hated it and I threw up and loved it.”

She quickly graduated from inhaling heroin to injecting the more deadly “speedball” combination of heroin and cocaine, despite a grave warning from someone already acquainted with its danger.

“One night, me and [my boyfriend] and one of his friends, we went to this house and they [were] shooting dope. I said, ‘I want to do it,’ and his friend started crying, and I’m talking about this was a tough thug. He said, ‘Don’t do that to her because she too sweet.’ I said, ‘Hit me,’ and he hit me and I was off to the races.”

These days, Fussell’s life is filled with a race of a different kind – to live a healthy life. She has been clean for 13 years, and, despite an AIDS diagnosis when her T-cells hit 77, she has managed to turn her health around. (Anyone who has fewer than 200 CD4 cells, a type of lymphocyte – or white blood cell – called the T-cell, is considered to have AIDS, according to the CDC.)

“The last time I used was July 24, 1995,” she said proudly.

She enjoys a close relationship with her large family, her doctors, “a multitude of friends and a loving church.” 

Fussell said all of these components, plus exercising, eating right and taking her medications faithfully have resulted in good news regarding her health.

“My T-cells are 780, my viral load is undetectable, my liver functions are fine, I used to be Hepatitis-something, but I’m negative now,” she said, adding, “It’s all about mind, body and soul.’’

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Members of a support group for people affected by HIV/AIDS meet at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City.