A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report says that although African American teens (ages 13-19) represent only 15 percent of U. S. teenagers, they accounted for 66 percent of new AIDS cases reported among teens in 2003. The study also reports that African American women account for the vast majority of new AIDS cases among women (67 percent in 2004); white women account for 17 percent and Latinas 15 percent.
For the last few weeks I have been contemplating over these startling statistics that suggest a ‘state of emergency’ for the African American community. No matter how many articles or reports I read on the topic, I cannot escape feeling that the reasons for such high HIV/AIDS infection rates in the African American community are from the absence of making healthy lifestyle choices.
Growing up, I was taught the positives of abstinence, safe-sex and staying drug free. At home, in school and in advertisements, I became surrounded by messages that reinforced healthy lifestyle choices. But, many of my largely African American peers who shared my experiences chose to live unsafe lifestyles.
In high school, I would wonder what in the world was going on with my close friends, peers and even family. It seemed like the weekly topics amongst my friends and family concerned: who was currently pregnant or who had contracted an STD. I did not understand why my peers consistently put themselves in unsafe positions and furthermore, why they boasted about it.
One would think that college would be different. It’s not. My experiences at Temple in terms of my peers taking care of themselves seems to be just like high school, but on a wider scale. In college, one would expect a typical student to know the dangers in unsafe sex, drinking and drugs, but nonetheless, many students drink and drive, have sex without condoms and take drugs for fun. I would claim that almost every student is cognizant of the possible consequences of their actions, just as I believe most African Americans know the dangers in unprotected sex and taking drugs.
In an article by John Andriote published in Population Reference Bureau, titled “HIV/AIDS and African Americans: A ‘State of Emergency,'” Andriote says: “Although African Americans are most commonly infected by HIV through sex and drug-using behaviors … additional socio-economic and cultural factors – such as inadequate access to health care, denial about HIV and conspiracy theories about the virus – also make African Americans particularly vulnerable to infection.”
In addressing Andriote’s claims, I believe denial plays the most significant role in preventing African Americans from protecting themselves. In my experiences, many of my friends and family members were taught or heard about the risks of their actions, but took on an invincible attitude. I do not know how many times I heard my peers say “D, I’m cool, nothing will happen to me” when we discussed situations of sex and drugs.
While there are obviously many other factors out there that constitute the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African American community, I believe denial along with unhealthy decisions make up a large majority of infection cases. A psychological change must be made in order to rid African Americans of this catastrophic epidemic. Students must learn from an early age in home and at school about the reality of unsafe sex and drugs, not a sweet sugar-coated story about their consequences.
Diona Fay Howard can be reached at Dionafay04@yahoo.com.