AIDS in Black America: The World’s 16th Worst Epidemic

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Look for our film on AIDS in black America, coming in 2012. The film is made possible by support from The Ford Foundation, The M.A.C. AIDS FUND and the National Black Programming Consortium of CPB.

“We are on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the AIDS response,” wrote UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé in a new report (PDF) which lays out a number of startling figures:

• Annual new HIV infections fell by 21 percent worldwide between 1997 and 2010.

• An estimated 2.5 million deaths have been averted in low and middle-income countries since the introduction of antiretroviral therapy in 2005. An estimated 700,000 of those deaths were averted in the last two years, as access to treatment has scaled up.

• The number of new HIV infections in 2010 — 2.7 million — is 15 percent less than the number of new infections in 2001, and 21 percent less than the number of new infections in 1997, the peak of the epidemic.

• The rate of HIV infection is falling in 33 countries — 22 of them in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the region most affected by the AIDS pandemic.

But here in the U.S., where the annual number of new infections — 50,000 — has remained relatively stable since the 1990s, there are fewer reasons for optimism.

Every nine and a half minutes, somewhere in America, someone is infected with HIV. Half of them are black. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25 to 34. African American men are 6 times more likely to become infected than other men. And the rate of deaths from AIDS is 10 times higher for black Americans than for whites.

In Washington, D.C., the prevalence of HIV is higher than in the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria or Rwanda. AIDS in America is AIDS in black America.

While UNAIDS credits a scale-up in treatment for preventing new infections and averting deaths in many countries, the Black AIDS Institute tells a different story in a recent report (PDF):

In the HIV treatment era, racial and ethnic disparities in HIV medical outcomes have actually widened in the U.S. Since the mid-1990s, well-resourced communities have thrived on HIV medications, while low-income communities of color have failed to reap anywhere near the same degree of benefit. In the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we have failed to ensure that the fruits of modern medicine are provided to those who need them most.

“When you look at the AIDS epidemic in black America and you think about black America as if it was a country unto itself, it would have the 16th worst AIDS epidemic in the world,” Black AIDS Institute CEO Phill Wilson told FRONTLINE.

“If Black America were a country unto itself it would be eligible for PEPFAR dollars,” Wilson continued, referring to the $15 billion program begun in 2003 under President George W. Bush to fund prevention and treatment in 15 countries, mostly in Africa.

“That is the type of response that we need if we’re going to be serious about ending the AIDS epidemic in black America.”

Next year, FRONTLINE will take a hard look at the AIDS crisis in America’s African American community. Produced by Renata Simone, (The Age of AIDS) who has covered the AIDS epidemic since 1985, the film will cover the reasons people find themselves in the path of the virus — from our deepest secrets to some of the most enormous issues we face as a society.

At the heart of the film are the inspiring stories of people with HIV/AIDS like Nel, a grandmother living in Oakland, Christopher, a former schoolteacher in Selma, Alabama and Tom and Keith – two of the oldest surviving “bornies,” HIV-positive teenagers who were born with the disease.

Related: 20 Years After HIV Announcement, Magic Johnson Emphasizes: “I Am Not Cured”

AIDS activists chant slogans while shaking medicine bottles during a demonstration, Wednesday, June 8, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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