What African American Communities Can Learn from Africa About Stopping the Spread of HIV/ AIDS

During the recent Congressional Black Caucus Week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Peter Ngatia, Director of Capacity Building at the African Medical & Research Foundation (AMREF). He was in Washington DC to address the Caucus and provide an overview of new efforts to strengthen African Health systems and to among other things, discuss AMREF's response to urban-rural health challenges.

I was shocked to discover that the HIV infection rate for black males in our nation's capital is higher than that of some African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria. In our discussion Dr. Ngatia explained that in Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is slowing down in countries that were hugely hit such as Botswana, Malawi and Uganda, yet here in the United States the infection rates continue to increase. The statistics are dismal.

  • Black men accounted for 70% of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks in the US. The estimated rate of new HIV infection for black men was more than six and a half times as high as that of white men, and two and a half times as high as that of Latino men or black women.
  • Black men who have sex with men (MSM) represented an estimated 73% of new infections among all black men, and 37% among all MSM. More new HIV infections occurred among young black MSM (aged 13-29) than any other age and racial group of MSM. In addition, new HIV infections among young black MSM increased by 48% from 2006-2009.
  • Black women accounted for 30% of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks. Most (85%) black women with HIV acquired HIV through heterosexual sex. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for black women was more than 15 times as high as the rate for white women, and more than three times as high as that of Latina women. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women aged 25-34 years; is the 3rd leading cause of death for black women aged 35-44 years; and the 4th leading cause of death for black women aged 45-54 years.

An interview segment with Dr. Ngatia:

What strategies have you found to be most impactful in stemming the tide of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa?

Through the creation of awareness, there is a mass movement of people who are talking about the issues. Through awareness, the stigma around the disease is slowly decreasing. People are now more willing to talk about the issue and get help. People are asking for help, gay people are coming out to speak freely and take care of themselves, their partners and the community, instead of hiding.

How can Washington DC and other communities learn from what AMREF is doing in Africa?

Awareness is a key factor. Stigma is also a huge issue (for both homosexuals and heterosexuals) that must be broken down through the communities themselves. We must make HIV/AIDS a normal discussion like diabetes or hypertension and bring it to a level where it's comfortable for everyone to talk about it. Everybody must pull together and work on it -- all organizations, all populations. We cannot leave anyone behind when it comes to addressing issues of stigma.

Is condom use recommended?

Yes! Condoms, condoms, condoms! Because we understand human nature. Things happen. People get themselves entangled into all types of situations, so they should use condoms and engage in safe sex. We need to see a total decline because HIV/AIDS is preventable.

What role if any, does complacency play in the growing numbers of infection in places such as Washington DC?

Perhaps there is a sense of complacency because in the United States people can get medicine more readily than in Africa and people are not dying at the high rates here as they are in Africa. So yes, complacency must be avoided. We cannot afford to be complacent.