By Gerald Garth
For the past several weeks, there’s been a lot of talk about VH1’s reality show Love & Hip Hop Atlanta—chatter primarily focused on 44-year-old Mimi Faust and 32-year-old Nikko Smith’s now-infamous sex tape. The public’s response has ranged from disbelief that the mother of a 4-year-old would stoop to such lows to allegations about financial ploys. But someone must speak from a health perspective.
Specifically, we should be talking about safer-sex practices and the potential consequences of having unprotected sex, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). No, the subject is not as sexy as hanging from a shower rod, as Mimi did in the video, but the statistics are equally eye-popping.
Not only do Black Americans acquire more new HIV infections—44 percent—than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, but the Kaiser Family Foundation reports (pdf) that we make up the largest group estimated to be living with HIV. Of the 1.1 million Americans estimated to have HIV, almost half are Black. The rate of new infections among Black men is higher than among any other group; Black women rank third, the highest among women. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 16 Black men and 1 in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes. Black Americans also experience more HIV-related deaths.
With the epidemic’s epicenter shifting to the South, Georgia ranks fourth in new infections, following New York, Florida and Texas. In Atlanta, home of the VH1 show, the HIV rate among Black women is five times the CDC estimate and comparable to rates found in Democratic Republic of the Con-go, in sub-Saharan Africa.
What’s more, sex partners are at significant risk of contracting an STI from each other. Not only are Mimi and Nikko sexually active in the midst of an STI epidemic in the U.S.—which has among the highest infection rates in the world—but STI rates in this country are particularly acute among Blacks. Having an STI increases by two to five times a person’s risk of acquiring HIV, yet few Americans get tested for STIs.
According to TMZ, Mimi and Nikko’s antics have caused a shower-rod shortage as adventurous aspirants attempt to re-create the Mimi experience. But are people buying condoms with the same enthusiasm? Rubbers remain important and effective in preventing HIV and other STIs. And biomedical options, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and postexposure prophylaxis, now exist to help protect people from HIV. Recently, the CDC officially recommended that doctors prescribe PrEP to those whose sexual practices place them at high risk.
While people may have varying opinions about Mimi and Nikko’s motivations, as a community we Black people should agree to protect ourselves and our partners from the potential negative consequences of our sexual choices. Given the high risk of contracting HIV that Black Atlanta residents, Black Georgians and Black Americans have, self-protection should be our priority.
Gerald Garth is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and accountant who works for The Black AIDS Institute.