By Congressman Alcee L. Hastings
The ongoing struggle for equality comes in many forms, from protecting voting rights and advocating for equal pay regardless of gender to strengthening anti-discrimination laws in the workplace and increasing economic opportunity.
When it comes to our nation’s health care system, it is clear that significant racial and ethnic disparities persist in the morbidity rates for various diseases, access to treatment and care services, and outcomes.
While we are closer to realizing an AIDS-free generation than ever before, the epidemic is far from over. In particular, the burden of HIV/AIDS falls most heavily on racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, as well as communities in the Deep South.
Due to a combination of health, socioeconomic, and other factors, African Americans remain more likely to become infected with HIV, be living with AIDS, and face HIV-related deaths than any other racial group.
The statistics are alarming: African Americans account for approximately 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents, despite representing only about 12 percent of the U.S. population. This incidence rate is eight times higher than for whites. And, at some point in their lifetimes, an estimated one in 16 African American men and one in 32 African American women will be diagnosed with HIV.
Furthermore, African American youth, women, and men who have sex with men (MSM) are disproportionately affected. Over two-thirds of wo-men and teenagers, ages 13-19, who become infected with HIV are African American.
As a whole, approximately one in five individuals living with HIV in the United States is unaware that they are infected and may be spreading it to others. It is long past time that we break the silence and cycle of infection.
We must all take responsibility for our health by educating ourselves a-bout HIV/AIDS and encouraging an open dialogue in our communities, as well as knowing our status through testing and seeking treatment if necessary.
Stigma, fear, discrimination, homophobia, and negative perceptions about HIV testing present pervasive challenges to preventing the spread of HIV in the African American community. It is vitally important that we come together and stand up in support of greater access to AIDS prevention, treatment, and education services to help put an end to health disparities and save lives.
On April 23, 2014, as part of its ‘AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue’ campaign, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) will host a prayer service dinner and panel discussion with Rev. Al Sharpton on HIV/AIDS in the African American community from 5:00 to 8:30 PM at New Mount Olive Baptist Church (400 NW 9th Avenue) in Fort Lauderdale.
South Florida leads the nation in new HIV cases per capita, and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis is also on the rise. In Broward County, the number of syphilis cases alone has increased dramatically since 2000, and outpaced that of the entire state since 2005.
On Aug. 26, 2013, I was proud to mark the opening of AHF’s Broward Wellness Center in Fort Lauderdale, which provides clinical services for the diagnosis and treatment of STDs – including HIV/AIDS – on behalf of the Florida Department of Health in Bro-ward County. Within a few weeks of the opening, AHF had identified and treated 608 cases of syphilis.
Lawmakers, health care providers, faith leaders, and all members of the community must work together to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. Let us look out for each other and make sure that individuals have the knowledge, resources, and support they need to stay healthy.
Congressman Alcee L. Hastings represents Florida’s 20th Congressional district and serves as Senior Member of the House Rules Committee, Ranking Democratic Member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Co-Chairman of the Florida Delegation.