On June 5, 1981, an article reporting the first known cases of what we now call AIDS was published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Although AIDS was often considered a problem of white gay men, African Americans have been hard-hit by the disease since the earliest days of the epidemic. In fact, by the end of 1981, nearly 20 percent of all reported AIDS cases were among African Americans, who, at the time, made up only 13 percent of the population.
Thirty years later, more than 200,000 African Americans with AIDS have died and the disease now ranks as the third leading cause of death among black men and women ages 35-44.
Despite this heavy burden, the sense of crisis about HIV has waned. Studies show us that many Americans, including those in the African-American community, under-estimate their personal risk for infection or believe HIV is no longer a serious health threat.
We cannot afford to be complacent. The fact is that HIV is still a deadly disease — but we have the tools to prevent it.
In the three decades since that June 1981 report, extraordinary progress has been made in treating and preventing HIV and annual new infections have fallen by more than two-thirds since the height of the epidemic.
HIV prevention works. Since the beginning of the epidemic, it is estimated that HIV prevention programs in the U.S. have prevented more than 350,000 infections and have averted more than $125 billion in treatment costs.
The latest CDC data show that the number of annual new infections among blacks, while unacceptably high, is stable and has been for more than a decade — despite the fact that the number of people living with HIV, who can potentially transmit the disease, has steadily increased over that time due to improved treatments.
New infections have declined dramatically in several transmission categories where African Americans are disproportionately represented: babies born to HIV-infected mothers, intravenous drug users and heterosexuals.
We’ve seen new HIV prevention breakthroughs, such as evidence that taking a daily pill can reduce risk of infection for gay and bisexual men and applying a vaginal gel before and after sex can reduce risk of infection for women.
In July 2010, President Obama launched the National HIV/AIDS Strategy which provides a first-ever blueprint for fighting the epidemic, with a particular focus on populations hardest hit, including African Americans.
Yet, despite this progress, HIV continues to be a crisis in African-American communities, threatening the health, well-being and potential of African-American men and women across the United States.
While prevention efforts have helped to maintain stability in the overall level of HIV infection among African Americans for more than a decade, African Americans continue to face the most severe burden of HIV and AIDS of all racial/ethnic groups in the nation.
Today, blacks represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost half of people living with HIV in the U.S. (46 percent) and nearly half of new infections each year (45 percent). About one in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV during his lifetime, as will one in 32 black women.
Within the black community, the face of HIV is male and female, young and old, gay and straight. Among African Americans, black gay and bisexual men are the most disproportionately affected, accounting for 41 percent of all new HIV infections among African Americans overall.
Black women, the majority of whom are infected through heterosexual contact, are also severely impacted, accounting for 35 percent of all new HIV infections among African Americans overall.
Black women are also far more affected by HIV than women of other races. The rate of new HIV infections for black women is nearly 15 times as high as that of white women and nearly four times as high as that of Hispanic women.
AIDS continues to claim the lives of too many African American men and women. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 233,000 blacks with AIDS have died and, according to the most recent published data, AIDS is the third leading cause of death among black women aged 25-44 and among black men aged 35-44.