Is HIV/AIDS Becoming a Black Disease? Science Saying it is the Gene

On December the 1st, the world observed World AIDS Day for the 20th time with the motto ‘Lead, Empower and Deliver’. The importance of these in increasing awareness and advocating for more support is undeniable. But I fear, our rhetoric would remain just empty words as it has been for the last 20 years. I don’t think I am overstating if I say currently we wouldn’t find a place in the globe where HIV awareness hasn’t reached. Still, the infection rate is 2.7 faster than the increase in number of people taking treatment. Still, as alarming and troubling as ever!  To tell you the truth, every year, when the World AIDS Day is observed, I wonder if the disease is rather feeling celebrated. I’ve kind of lost trust in workshops, events and policy this and policy that.

What I found more unsettling, however, is the typically high spread rate of the disease among black people. Yes, it doesn’t matter in which continent; black people are being affected proportionally higher than any other racial group. Given that the number one transmission method is high-risk sexual relationship, I am sure you would be asking the same question I will be asking right here. Are we more promiscuous than others? Or are we just ignorant?

I wouldn’t claim I am an expert on the subject. When I was working on sexual and reproductive health for some years in Ethiopia, I remember me and my colleagues often getting confused and frustrated on the issue. Even though I was not a counsellor, I remember many young girls asking if they could talk to me taking the advantage of my open office door. Most of them come to the agency looking for emergency contraceptive pills, which shows that the method is being misused. What is obvious is these young girls exercise unsafe sex and their concern is not HIV, but pregnancy. That left me with confusion wondering what is happening to all the efforts that are exerted on awareness creation and behavioural change.

Coming back to the seriousness of the issue in respect to black people, it is a must that we visit the statistics. UNAIDS projects that 75% of global AIDS cases come from Sub-Saharan Africa, where I bet there wouldn’t be many people who don’t have the awareness  how to protect themselves from the epidemic. Unlike here in Canada, where I don’t hear much talk about AIDS, in Africa the issue bombards the media and billboards shout with various messages in both big cities and small towns. Musicians have sung about it. Writer have raised their pen against it. Most important of all, AIDS has knocked on everyone’s door. There wouldn’t be a person, who hasn’t lost a family member, a friend, a neighbour or an acquaintance because of the disease. If that doesn’t give one the awareness for behavioural change, what will?  Besides, the number of governmental, non-governmental and other community organizations whose mandate is fighting the epidemic is also high. So, what is wrong with us black people from Sub-Saharan Africa, taking such a big share of the tragedy when it is obvious that we have the information on the matter?

The problem doesn’t confine itself in Africa, which is why we are asking if HIV/AIDS is becoming a black disease. I am sure you are familiar with the statistics from US, Canada, the UK and the Caribbean as well. In all cases, black people are again disproportionally affected. Even though they comprise only 13% of the US population, African Americans account for 49% of the new HIV infections. In UK, the general prevalence rate is 0.2%, but among blacks it goes up to 3%. In Canada, where black people are only 2.2% of the population, the 15.2% of HIV cases come from the black community. The Caribbean is also the second most affected region next to Sub- Saharan Africa, with Haiti being the most distressed. The saddest fact that is common to all areas is also black women share the highest prevalence rate than their male counterparts.

You and I haven’t been the only ones asking why this epidemic, which is not supposed to know race, gender, ethnic, religious and class boundaries, is hitting hard on black people. Common explanations given include poverty, stigma against people with HIV and misconceptions. Scientists also have been pondering over the issue and recently it seems that they have found some new answers. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UNAIDS, international HIV scientists have discovered that there is a gene variant explanation to the high rate of HIV among African decent people. A gene variant, which is common in black people and protects against certain types of malaria, happens to make black people more vulnerable to HIV by 40%. According to the study, 40% of African Americans and 90% of Africans have this genetic trait. Scared? or relieved that at least we might not be sexually looser than others? Don’t get settled. The study also projects that the gene variant might be responsible for 11% of Africa’s HIV cases. In that case, we still have 64 percent to explain, which again takes us to pointing our figures at sexual behaviour.

I would still say behavioural change is what we need most. Each and every one of us has the responsibility to protect ourselves and those we love. I think personal dedication is the best way to go. Don’t say I am boring you, but I have no choice but concluding my remarks with the old, but life saving three ABC rules that we have been told for the last many many years: Abstinence, be faithful, use Condom.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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