HIV/AIDS film screening puts spotlight on Black infection rates

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), the number of people being newly diagnosed with HIV infections, as well as the number of those living with HIV/AIDS in the state, has seen a slow but steady increase over the past five years.

As of December 31, 2008, 20 percent of the total 8,819 HIV and AIDS cases reported to the MDH are African American and seven percent are African-born:

1,351 African Americans and 793 African-born people currently are living with HIV. Among the new HIV cases in Minnesota, the statewide rates for Blacks are about 10 times greater than Whites’, and 18 to 26 times greater than Whites’ in African-born communities.

Furthermore, women of color have accounted for 74 percent of new infections among women in 2009: African American (27 percent) and African-born (29 percent) women account for over half of the new infections reported, says the MDH. It is lower among Black males (22 percent), while White males account for 58 percent of new infections.

Also, approximately 16 percent of new HIV/AIDS infections each year are being found among adolescents and young adults, mostly among young males, over the past five years.

A group of Pittsburgh inner-city Black high school students recently examined the social, cultural and scientific reasons why HIV/AIDS is so prevalent in their communities and interviewed people who are living with and affected by the disease in Why Us? Left Behind and Dying, a 25-minute documentary directed by Claudia Pryor Malis. The film was shown October 16 at the 2010 Twin Cities Black Film Festival, and a panel discussion was held afterwards.

“Watching the video was heart-wrenching,” noted Minneapolis resident David Schultz, who is living with HIV. He got infected from abusing intravenous drugs. “I was diagnosed three years [ago] while I was in the military.

When I went in for treatment, [doctors] discovered that my blood count was very low.”

Schultz’s life since then has undergone several changes. After he returned home, his fiancée left him. He battled depression, using drugs “to not go through the pain I [went] through every day,” he admitted. “It caused me to hate myself. The darkness came over me…from the effect of the HIV.”

Schultz later got sober through a 12-step program. Although he fully knows his illness has no cure, “I don’t think about how long I have to live,” he asserted. “I have full-blown AIDS. I take three medications a day.”

“Black people in Minnesota make up three percent of the population, but…we make up over 34 percent of the [HIV-infected] population,” said Val Smith, a local health advocate who works with young Blacks ages 13-24.

“Women are more likely to become infected with HIV than men are,” Schultz pointed out. “African Americans are more likely to become infected with HIV than a White person.” There are still too many people having sex without a condom, he added.

The MDH also reports that communities of color have the highest rates in sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) in Minnesota. Minneapolis, the Twin Cities suburbs and Greater Minnesota account for a large percentage of STD cases.

Blacks (37 percent incidence rate for males and 26 percent for females) are 16 times more likely to have chlamydia, the most commonly reported STD in Minnesota, than Whites. Blacks continue to have gonorrhea incidence rates far higher than other ethnic groups (males 52 percent, females 45 percent) — 36 times that among Whites, with Minneapolis and St. Paul accounting for the highest rates.

Minneapolis also has the majority of syphilis cases (54 percent) in Minnesota. Although Black males in 2009 had a lower percentage of cases (15 percent) than White males (75 percent), the rate of primary/secondary syphilis for Blacks (5.4 percent) is higher than for Whites (1.2 percent).

“I feel like I am doing the work of five people because we are having so many cases, [especially] a lot of syphilis [cases],” said MDH Disease Investigator Sandy Johnson.

“We all need to be educated on how to not to get” STDs, HIV and AIDS, said Smith, whose caseload continues to rise, including clients who have been put out of their homes because they have been diagnosed with HIV.

Meanwhile as these diseases increase statewide, funding for education and prevention has decreased as well, Johnson added. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of our programs that were not able to be funded this year as well as last year. We [also] have been asked to cut even more money, $600,000 from our department by the year 2011-12.”

“I didn’t plan on getting infected with HIV at 19 years old,” said Schultz.

“Now I am working on being successful in my life through a job, through a relationship and having a family.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.