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AIDS in Black America: ‘We Can Win this Battle’

Frontline examines the high rates of AIDS among African Americans and the rise of the virus among heterosexual women in the new documentary, "ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America." Gwen Ifill interviews Phill Willson, director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.

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    And we turn to the toll AIDS is taking among African-Americans.

    That's the focus of a two-hour "Frontline" documentary tonight, as the International AIDS Conference prepares to convene in Washington next week.

    The "Frontline" special tackles the many strands of the disease and its disproportionate effect on the black community, including the rise in HIV infection among heterosexual women.

    One of them is a woman named Nel, the mother of five and grandmother of 17, whose second marriage was to a man she trusted, a deacon in her church.

  • NEL, AIDS Sufferer:

    It was happy time. We had a lot in common. Great sense of humor. We liked to do a lot of things together. The only thing that was kind of different, he was a Raider fan, and I am a Dallas Cowboy fan. So that was a little — you know, didn't quite mix too well. But we got through that.

    So he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. And so we was engaged for about a year. And so we prepared. If you're going to get married in a church, you have to go through six-week marriage counseling. So we went through all of that.

    REV. EDWARD FIELDS, Newport Baptist Church: The first thing we do is, we go over the biblical concept of love. And then we deal with finances, keeping the excitement in your marriage, and then, you know, talking and how to communicate with your wife, six major subjects that it deals with.

  • NEL:

    After the six weeks, we was fine. So, then we got married.

    The children was there. The grandchildren — actually, my grandchildren was my wedding party. And my granddaughters was the little flower girls. So, from there, we took off. And he wanted to go on a cruise and I wanted to go to Disney World, because I'm afraid of the water.


  • NEL:

    So we went to Disney World.

    And the whole while I was there, I was sick. And I didn't think too much about it, because, you know, the hustle and bustle of trying to get through the wedding. And we both had bad colds. So I was in bed. Basically, the whole while, I was in bed and couldn't eat and just really sick.


    After the honeymoon, months went by, and Nel didn't feel any better. But she settled into married life.

  • NEL:

    So, this one particular morning, I was making the bed, making our bed. And on his side of the bed was his Bible, so — and just kind of disrupted Bible and it was unzipped, it had Bible and all of the content of it fell out.

    So, when I was trying to get it back in — he wasn't there. I was trying to get it back in. I just felt like I had been invading his privacy, so I was hurrying up trying to get it back in. And this letter that I could not put back in its proper place, it was a letter from the blood bank.

    So, and, at first, I didn't want to open it, but I had this burning — it was like, you need to read that. I can't express to you what that feeling was, but it was like, you must read this. So I did. I opened it up and I read it.

    And it started off saying — you know, informing him that he had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and that he should, you know, seek medical attention. And this letter was dated a year before we get married.

    So, at that time, I read it, and I read it. I could not believe it. So — excuse me. But, during that time, I still didn't put it together why I had been sick or ill or anything. So I sat him down and I asked him, was there something that he forgot to share with me before we got married?

    And he said, no, no, no. We have no secrets. I told you everything. And I said, I'm going ask you again. Is there something that you forgot to tell me before we got married? And he said no again. And I said, now I'm going to ask you again. Think about this before you answer this time. And I asked again. And he said no, no, no. There is nothing. I have — you know, everything about me, you know.

    And that's when I showed time letter. I said, well, did you forget to tell me this? And — whew. At that time, he said, I tried to tell you, but I was afraid I would lose you if I had told you. And I said at that time, no, how could you love me and keep such a secret from me? This is the worst kind of betrayal that anyone could do to anybody. I said, this is not love.


    Two weeks later, Nel discovered she, too, was HIV- positive.

    Of the more than one million Americans living with HIV, with one new diagnosis every 10 minutes, government statistics show more than half are black.

    For a broader look at an epidemic many Americans believe had faded, we're joined by Phill Wilson, the director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. He's also featured in tonight's documentary.

    Hello, Phill Wilson.

    Half of these cases are black. Why is there such a disproportionate impact in the black community?

    PHILL WILSON, director, Black AIDS Institute: Well, Gwen, a number of reasons.

    One, AIDS initially was mischaracterized as a white, gay disease. And as a result of that, we got a slow start in the black community. HIV is also a disease of sexual networks. And so while we were not paying attention, if you will, the virus had a chance to take hold in our communities.

    And we have been playing catchup all along. The second part of it is that the resources have not been in place in black communities to appropriately fight the epidemic. And the third reason is quite frankly a story of a lack of leadership.

    Only recently have we started to take the kind of ownership and have we started to experience the kind of leadership necessary to really fight the epidemic appropriately.


    Is it also a factor in which there's — the stigma stronger in the African-American community, the silence, the secret-keeping, the fear?


    I don't necessarily know if the stigma is stronger, but I do believe that the ramifications are more severe.

    I think that, for black people, we are in greater need of the sanctuary that comes in our racial ethnic communities. And as a result, the sacrifice that's necessary — that can happen when you're stigmatized can be more severe. And I think that's — so we experience it in a more severe way, and that undermines our ability to talk about HIV in an appropriate manner.


    You just saw the story of the woman from California, Nel.

    How is it that — when was it that this disease went from being, as you described, a gay, white male disease to affecting women and children so broadly?


    Well, you know, Gwen, it was never really a white, gay disease. It was characterized that way.

    But, from the very beginning, black people were disproportionately impacted. We represented 25 percent of the cases in the early, early days. And black women were always disproportionately impacted. And part of the challenge that we're fighting is the disconnect.

    When you're talking about a disease like HIV, people don't want it to be about them. And when they're told that it's not about them, all the more reason for them not to pay attention. But what has happened in black communities over time, because of the way that HIV works, and that no one is really safe, the virus has had a chance to take ahold in our community and particularly take ahold among black women, young people.

    But it continues to be a problem among black gay and bisexual men as well.


    Now, you said that this is a problem that could have been nipped in the bud long ago. Is it being nipped in the bud now? Is there enough awareness now?


    There certainly is not enough awareness now, but we're doing a much better job than we were doing.

    I'm optimistic this film will help, because this film not only addresses where we have been and addresses some of the problems, but it speaks to some of the things that are working and some of the potential that we have, some of the hope that we have to bringing about the end of the AIDS epidemic.

    We certainly are seeing a much greater awareness in black communities and we're seeing much greater involvement among black leadership than we have in the past.


    You know, Phill, in this film, there's also — Magic Johnson participates and talks about his diagnosis and how he's continued to live with the virus all these years after his very famous declaration about his status.

    Did that serve to make the disease more invisible in some ways? People said, well, Magic is fine. Then it must be fine.


    Well, I actually think the work that Magic has done and is doing is really important, because, Gwen, here's the deal.

    We actually can end the AIDS epidemic in black communities. We have those tools. And the message we have to get out to black folks is that we can win this battle. Together, we are greater than AIDS. But there are a few things that we have to do.

    We have to get informed about the disease. Knowledge is a powerful tool. Number two, we have to get tested. There's no reason why we don't know our HIV status. Many of the barriers that make it difficult for people to find out their HIV status, they have gone away. Last week, the FDA approved an at-home test.

    Today, it's never been easier or more important to know your HIV status. The next message is that treatments are available. I have been living with HIV for 32 years now. Magic is alive today, I'm alive today because we are on treatment.

    Now — and, but, Gwen, the other part of the story is that AIDS — people are still dying from AIDS who are not on treatment. And so I think that Magic saying you can live your life if you do something, that's an important message, and that's a message that we need to spread in our community.


    The title of the documentary tonight is "Endgame."

    Do you see an endgame in sight?


    I absolutely, absolutely do. But you know me. I'm an optimist.

    But I do see an endgame. We have new tools that are at our delivery. I already talked about the diagnostic tools. We have new surveillance tools. We know, for example, if someone like me, who's HIV-positive, if we go on treatment, we're able to suppress our viral load. We can actually reduce the ability to transmit the virus by 96 percent.

    That's huge. That's a game-changer. But we're not going to get there if people don't get informed about the disease, if people don't get tested, if people don't seek treatment, and if we don't create an environment where we are not stigmatizing people. We have to do those things. And if we do those things, I think we will see the endgame.


    Phill Wilson, as always, a pleasure talking to you at the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. Thank you so much.


    Thank you, Gwen.


    On our website, we look at how the HIV/AIDS rate in Washington, D.C., compares to nations in sub-Saharan Africa. That's part of a partnership with the GlobalPost.

  • “Frontline”‘s “Endgame:

    AIDS in Black America" airs tonight on most PBS stations.

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