National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day aims to decrease disease stigma

(Left to right) Writer and director Nathan Hale Williams, cast member Nic Few and director and production designer Jennia Frederique spoke at a panel. Louis Kengi Carr | Daily Trojan

Wednesday marks the 18th year of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a day established to increase awareness and decrease stigma around sexually transmitted diseases within black communities.

“HIV and AIDS disproportionately affects black youth,” said Tensie Taylor, assistant director of the USC Black Alumni Association. “To see some of the USC students [saying] they don’t even talk about their STDs or HIV status with their partner, I found that alarming because part of the ways you can prevent [the diseases] is to know your status — to have the conversation.”

To improve dialogue around the issue, the association worked alongside the Black AIDS Institute to host an on-campus screening of 90 Days, a film about a black couple with mixed-status HIV, in January.

“One of the most effective ways to communicate [the] message about HIV and AIDS is through entertainment, is through story, is through films that actually reflect back to the community the issues that are being addressed,”  said Phill Wilson, founder and president of the Black Aids Institute.

The film focused on a black woman named Jessica, who contracts HIV in college, and highlighted the high risk for women in Jessica’s demographic: Black women are 16 times more likely to acquire HIV compared to white women, according to the Black Aids Institute.

“I felt like by starting this conversation, if [the screening is] successful in [going] to other colleges around the country, just to show young people [they] can prevent this,” Taylor said.

HIV and AIDS have an intersectional impact on black communities, since aspects of class, gender and disability magnify the epidemic’s effect, according to Marie-Fatima Hyacinthe, a mobilization coordinator at the Black AIDS Institute.

Although black Americans make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population, 45 percent of all HIV-diagnosed individuals in 2015 were black. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gay and bisexual men are also disproportionately affected, making up 58 percent of black men diagnosed.

“I think that the USC community should be paying attention to these issues because the fastest growing population being impacted by either STIs or HIV are college-aged students,” Wilson said.

Wilson established the Black Aids Institute in 1999 and is working to confront HIV and AIDS in what he says is a “uniquely and unapologetically black point of view,” by mobilizing black institutions, educating people and providing services to communities.

“Particularly within the LGBT communities, they are still stigmatizing language, calling people who are HIV-positive ‘dirty’ or things of that nature,” Wilson said. “The stigmas in the black communities aren’t immune from that either.”

By bringing impactful awareness events, like the 90 Days screening, to campus, Taylor aims to be a part of the effort to destigmatize HIV and AIDS.

“The key that I want to keep reiterating is awareness and education,” Taylor said. “Because when you know something, you have the possibility to change it and … be proactive about it.”

Taylor also emphasized the necessity for USC and its student health centers to be more involved in advocating for HIV and AIDS awareness, in addition to providing faster services for students.

Currently, the Engemann Student Health Center provides an HIV test that costs approximately $30, according to its website, and most tests deliver results in at least a week. Taylor suggested implementing rapid HIV tests on campus, which provide results in a few minutes and can be used in routine testing.

As a result of the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS in the black community, people are less likely to get tested and receive treatment, Hyacinthe said.

White men make up the majority of pre-exposure prophylaxis prescriptions, a daily preventative HIV pill for people at risk. And only 15 percent of PrEP prescriptions were filled by women, with black women constituting an even smaller percentage, according to the Black Aids Institute.

“We still see disparities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, education and region in the country where you live,” Wilson said.  But, he said he believes the U.S. has the medical capability to end the AIDS epidemic.

“I just want this conversation to continue and to spread awareness and education, and to get college students talking,” Taylor said. “And so just to encourage people to know your status, be safe, protect yourself, and know that you do have it, it’s not a death sentence.”