The HIV/AIDS virus was once thought to be a gay white man disease – it isn’t. And after three decades since the epidemic began, HIV/AIDS is still prevalent – especially in the Black community.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
*Gay and bisexual men account for more than half of estimated new HIV diagnoses among African-Americans.
*The number of HIV diagnoses among African-American women has declined, though it is still high compared to women of other races/ethnicities.
Dr. Carroll Watkins Ali, a board member of the Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance, has been concerned about the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the initial outbreak in the U.S. during the early 1980s. She says 120,000 African-Americans live in the Denver metro-area – which equates to 12 percent of the greater metropolitan area. However, 14.5 percent of those Coloradans are living with HIV/AIDS.
Ali says 50 additional African-Americans are diagnosed with HIV each year, compared to 10 whites and 16 Latinos. To underline Denver’s shocking statistics, the CDC reports that African-Americans have the most HIV cases of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States – even though Blacks represent less than 15 percent of the total U.S. population.
A Viable Option
Most people do not consider Black churches to be a viable option for HIV prevention – but they are. And for years Black clergy have taken harsh criticism for remaining silent about the disease, because of the church’s unyielding stance on gay sex and drug use – a fact that many medical experts denounce as ignorant and an unfounded stigma.
On the other hand, Black clergy does have its champions, saying it’s unfair to single out the church, because there has been a growing number of HIV prevention and treatment programs currently offered by Black churches across the U.S. and in the Mile High-City.
Cornerstone institutions such as Black churches, barbershops and beauty salons, have become practical places to address concerns about prevention and efforts to stop the HIV epidemic in the Black community, removing the myths about the disease.
Several Denver area Black churches are hosting HIV screening events open to the public – teens, adults and seniors are encouraged to participate. The screenings, funded by The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), is totally free.
“We’ve been doing AIDS/HIV screenings at the United Church of Montbello for well over five years now,” explains Pastor Dr. James Fouther, Jr. “Mostly in the past, we’ve done them in conjunction with our World AIDS Day programs that we’ve co-sponsored with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and Denver, Colorado AIDS Project.
Dr. Fouther adds, last year the United Church of Montbello became involved with Dr. Ali and the Interfaith Collaborative of Churches, Mosques, etc. to do more testing than merely the one day of testing that was done previously for their World AIDS Day programs.
So far this year United Church of Montbello has tested about 30 participants. In previous years, as part of its efforts for World AIDS Day Worship/Recognition, there were between 10 and 20 tests administered by the United Church of Montbello.
Everyone Is At Risk
The CDC reports one out of seven individuals, who participate in HIV/AIDS screening, test positive and would have unknowingly pass the virus onto others if they went undetected. And the 56 percent of church members feel more encouraged and comfortable receiving HIV screening administered in the church rather than visiting a clinic with friends or family.
“Our testing, so far, has been offered following worship services in the month of April,” Dr. Fouther says. “We are also offering testing on Thursdays, beginning at 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. This is to ensure more privacy for those who wish it. Persons wishing to utilize the Thursday hours should call the church office at 303-373-0070 and let us know which Thursday they would like to come.”
Dr. Fouther adds the next phase of testing is with local schools on behalf of The United Church of Montbello.
The screening program offered by the Black churches help individuals, even those who do not consider themselves as high risk, to know their status.
“We know IV drug users,” Dr. Fouther says, “men who have unprotected sex with men, but most importantly African-American women are at a significant risk right now. Women who don’t know whether their male partners have had unprotected sex with other men are especially vulnerable. It is important for us all to KNOW OUR STATUS.”
Dr. Ali explains Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance has been conducting HIV screenings since 2005. “However, It Takes a Village in Aurora (Imani Latif, director) and Brother Jeff’s Community Health Initiative in Denver took the lead in HIV screening the African-American community years earlier.
Dr. Ali adds Rev. Lewis F. Brown, New Beginnings Cathedral of Worship, was the first pastor to model HIV screening in his church in Aurora.
“Currently, these congregations are taking the lead to impact HIV prevention in the African-American community, but are also working with other churches, to help change the environment in the Black Faith Community around HIV/AIDS,” Ali says.
Dr. Ali punctuates the point that these congregations hope to remove the ignorance, denial and stigma so that our community will understand that HIV is a serious health issue for the Black community. And courageous Denver area faith leaders and their congregations are willing to break the silence and confront HIV head on without blaming, shaming or condemning anyone.
“Everyone is encouraged to know their HIV status,” Ali says. “The hope is that screening in churches will catch on and become a regular part of churches’ health ministry.”
So how does it work?
Relatively the process is a quick and painless oral test with swab of the mouth. Results are known in 20 minutes. The entire process takes about 30 minutes.
Many people tested were found to be single, with no insurance, were inconsistent with condom use and had the best intentions to be tested at a future date.
Screenings begin in May and end June 30. The goal is to test 1,000 people in the community so that funding will continue from the CDPHE to effectively impact HIV prevention.
“This is a first, a pilot project – we have a lot to prove,” Dr. Ali says, “especially that we can come together as a community with the faith community taking the lead to end the threat of HIV/AIDS for future generations.
People have the option of contacting any of the congregations directly that is listed in this article to set up individual appointments, or to take part in screening sessions following worship services.
“We will also be offering screening at health fairs and other local community events during May and June,” Dr. Ali says. “People can also contact me directly at my office at 303-297-8010 ext. 104 and I will provide them with a referral.”
Dr. Fouther says The United Church of Montbello is hungry to embrace the compassionate stance its three denominations hold (UCC/UMC/PCUSA) where the issues of HIV/AIDS are concerned. The awareness of this present urgency for HIV testing was a surprise at first for his congregation.
“But I am extraordinarily proud of our congregation for being strong advocates for saving lives through testing,” Dr. Fouther says. “And I am convinced that’s what we are doing. We are saving lives with every test and every person’s HIV status being revealed.”
Dr. Ail emphasizes that the Black community needs to get the victory over HIV/AIDS.
“If we don’t, the next generation will wonder what were they thinking…?”
Living With HIV and Deaths
*At the end of 2012, an estimated 496,500 African-Americans were living with HIV, representing 41 percent of all Americans living with the virus. Of African-Americans living with HIV, around 14 percent do not know they are infected.
*Of African-Americans diagnosed with HIV in 2013, 79 percent were linked to HIV medical care within 3 months, but only 51 percent were retained in HIV care (receiving continuous HIV medical care)
*Only 37percent of African-Americans living with HIV at the end of 2012 were prescribed antiretroviral therapy (ART), the medicines used to treat HIV, and only 29 percent had achieved viral suppression.
*In 2013, 3,742 African-Americans died of HIV or AIDS, accounting for 54 percent of total deaths attributed to the disease that year.
(Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention)