"It’s killing us,” said Carla Bailey, an HIV/AIDS activist and AIDS survivor speaking at “What’s Killing Us?” a September 10 health summit at Community Hospital of San Bernardino. Bailey, who sits on the Los Angeles County HIV Commission, insists “the HIV fight begins and ends with us.”
“De-nial is not just a river in Egypt. We know firsthand what HIV/AIDS is doing to the Black community. We’ve buried countless family members, neighbors, and friends, yet everyday people get infected with the virus. How do you tackle this epidemic when a lot of people are reluctant and embarrassed about discussing AIDS,” said Bailey.
If history is any indication, Bailey a mother of six children should be dead and gone. When she was diagnosed with full blown AIDS in 1995 doctors gave her an abysmal prognosis.
She was a single parent raising her now adult children and working as an operations manager at a Beverly Hills real-estate firm.
She and her fiancé were in a long term committed relationship.
“I never asked him about his sexual past. I trusted him,” said Bailey. Upon learning of her diagnosis, she had no symptoms.
She lost her home and most of her possessions, her job folded and she was told by her doctors she should consider not working due to the stress of her position. Displaced she moved in with her sister and suffered severe depression.
“For years I wallowed in a vacuum of shame, silence and fear.”
With prodding from Dr. Wilbert C. Jordan, a Los Angeles physician and leading researcher on HIV/AIDS in the African American community, Carla soon became a volunteer and full time HIV/AIDS activist.
She now travels the nation educating kids from middle school through college. She has addressed women’s conferences, church organizations and legislators about the disease and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including, NPR, C-SPAN and the Women’s Network TV.
Bailey shared her moving story with more than 100 health professionals, vocational nursing students from Four-D College in Colton, HIV activists and people living with AIDS attending the 3rd annual HIV/AIDS Health Summit sponsored by B.A.S.I.A. (Brothers and Sisters in Action).
She says her goal is to stimulate frank discussions about HIV/AIDS and educate people on the consequences of having unprotected sex.
“We’re up against young people being influenced by the omnipresent glamour and excitement of engaging in sex. We’ve got adults and parents referring to their children’s vaginas as ‘sweet things’ and their penis’ as ‘joy sticks’. Consequently you have kids having sex with a carefree risk taking attitude.”
Bailey said there are two huge myths about HIV that persist in African American communities.
The first is we have a cure or some sort of vaccine, “but ‘they’re not telling us because it’s a government plot to kill Black people. The second is ‘you can take medicine for HIV and look like Magic Johnson’.”
Bailey is unequivocal in her response: There is no cure for HIV disease. There is no vaccine for HIV.”
Dr. Jordan the medical Director of the OASIS Clinic in Los Angeles says he’s heard his share of mistaken assumptions.
“There is a climate of ignorance that blames everything from government conspiracy to punishment from God,” said Dr. Jordan. “I tell patients Magic Johnson is living with AIDS and he looks good but the reality is if you had $10,000 to pay for a custom suit, you’d look good too. If you have millions to spend on the most advanced HIV medicines and treatment – you’d look good too.”
Jordan told the audience the best way to overcome the myths about HIV is by urging African Americans to educate themselves about the virus, its consequence and the resources available.
Jordan said many African Americans with HIV are leading healthy happy lives years after their diagnosis. But more than half of the people who died of AIDS last year were Black – “that’s stark evidence that too many African Americans don’t get it.”
He stressed its one thing to be victimized by overt individual or institutional racism, none of which should be tolerated, “But to be the architect of your own demise is pathetic.”
“We know that HIV spreads among men who have sex with men in prison. A lot of jails and prisons refuse to pass out condoms.
These situationally homosexual guys get out, intending to lead a primarily heterosexual lifestyle, and then they transmit the virus to their gullible wives and girlfriends.”
Dr. Jordan said there is enormous opposition to drug needle exchange from the Black church and the federal government. The churches have been disappointingly slow to even discuss HIV/AIDS. He cited recent progress with faith organizations like Balm in Gilead which have mobilized on historically Black colleges, and charter schools providing training workshops and educating government and communities about the epidemic.
“The Church’s record is not unblemished. Judgmental attitudes, which see HIV as a punishment for sin and immorality, have contributed to creating another epidemic – of stigma and discrimination,” said Jordan. He said HIV is not a moral judgment but a virus that can affect anyone.
In Dr. Ernest Levister’s mind though, it’s not just about educating about HIV/AIDS.
“The discussion must be about rethinking whole body behavioral choices including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hepatitis – the things that are killing Blacks.
Dr. Levister a cardio-pulmonary physician in San Bernardino and longtime health columnist for the Black Voice News offered what a vocational nursing student from Four-D College called a welcome slap in the face to the large number of overweight or obese people in the summit audience.
Levister said patients with HIV/AIDS have an increased number of routine and complex infections the result of a suppressed immune system. In cases of Type II diabetes, certain airway or GI diseases which are due to obesity, those infections are more difficult to treat. “You can choose to be offended (which is not my intention) or as the face of the next generation of health care providers, choose to rethink your behavioral choices.”
“I think we need to face up to those things that are tearing the fabric of our already disenfranchised community,” said Emma J. an African American nursing student from Riverside City College who admitted to ballooning to 285 pounds at 5’3 following the birth of her child in 2008.
“The truth of the matter is in 2010 AIDS in America is virtually a Black disease,” said Patricia Green Lee, CEO, B.A.I.S.A. “The epidemic will not be over unless and until Black people in America develop the capacity, infrastructure and commitment to make it so.
Black people even throughout slavery have been able to accomplish whatever it was in front of them with one hand while simultaneously knocking down the next barrier with the other.”
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