People are already descending on Washington, D.C., in preparation for the 19th International AIDS Conference, which is opened July 22-27. This is the first International AIDS Conference held in the U.S. in 20 years. Leading up to the conference, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a drug called Truvada for the purposes of preexposure prophylaxis. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is when a person who does not have HIV uses anti- HIV medications to prevent acquisition of the virus. That means even if you are exposed to the virus, you don’t get infected and therefore don’t get sick.
The FDA got this one right. PrEP will be a very useful tool in stopping HIV infections among the most at-risk population on the planet, Black gay and bisexual men. For young Black gay and bisexual men, this decision happened not a moment too soon.
But here’s what I’m worried about. We know that the science shows that PrEP works for gay and bisexual men. We know that in some of our urban communities nearly half of Black men who have sex with men are already HIV positive. We know that there has been nearly a 50 percent increase among HIV cases among young Black men over the past three years. But we do not know if our community will embrace this new tool. The challenges for us are: Will we get the information that will allow us to learn what PrEP is and what PrEP is not, who should be taking it and who should not, where to find it and how to use it?
Sometimes I think that if the cure for HIV was in the air, Black folks would hold our breath.The reason why the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington is so important is because it is time for us to stop playing with HIV. Every step of the way, Black Americans have resisted protecting ourselves and saving our lives. In the beginning of the epidemic when we could have saved lives, Black people pretended like it was someone else’s problem. When the first treatments (as crude as they were) became available, we resisted making the treatments available even for folks for whom it was appropriate. I suffered thru the horrible days and nights of AZT, which was a terrible drug. But I’m alive 32 years later because I stayed alive long enough for the next generation of drugs to become available. When needleexchange programs were proven to stop transmission of HIV without increasing IV drug use, Black Americans developed a not-in-my-backyard attitude and resisted needle-exchange programs at the expense of thousands of lives. When the new protease inhibitors became available, again we were slow to respond. Now we’re being presented with a host of breakthrough biomedical interventions, yet around the country we are obsessing about issues that, while important, are not paramount. Every racial and ethnic community in America is making progress toward the end of the AIDS epidemic except Black people.
During the Holocaust when the Nazis were rounding up the Jews, people just stood by and watched it happened not realizing that people like them were being rounded up as well. For years Black people have watched everybody else dying from AIDS, not realizing that we were infected as well. In Nazi Germany people remained silent until it was too late. Will we?