As the world marked the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS this summer, one important story was mostly ignored: AIDS is an epidemic in the African American community and it's spreading fast.
Watch Primetime's special report "Out of Control: AIDS in Black America," Thursday, Aug. 24, at 10 p.m.
Shortly before his cancer diagnosis, Peter Jennings started work on a one-hour documentary devoted solely to the issue of AIDS in Black America. ABC News has now finished his work in a one-hour Special Edition of "Primetime," reported by Terry Moran, airing Thursday, Aug. 24, at 10 PM.
"In America today, AIDS is virtually a black disease, by any measure," says Phill Wilson, executive director of The Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. Wilson also points out that while many black American leaders and celebrities have embraced the cause of the epidemic's toll in Africa, few have devoted similar energy to the crisis here at home.
Jennings's contribution to the hour is a candid group discussion he conducted with HIV-positive African American men in Atlanta about the harsh realities of dealing with AIDS in Black America.
Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for over 50 percent of all new cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That infection rate is eight times the rate of whites. Among women, the numbers are even more shocking--- almost 70 percent of all newly diagnosed HIV-positive women in the United States are black women. Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women, with heterosexual contact being the overwhelming method of infection in black America.
Terry Moran talks to experts in several key areas that contribute to the spread of AIDS in black America, including the disproportionate number of black men in prison. Prisons have AIDS infection rates five times higher than outside the walls, and many men go into prison HIV negative and come out infected, often without knowing it, since there is no comprehensive national testing, prevention, or treatment program for prison and jail inmates.
The failure of efforts in the 1990s to get federal support for needle exchange programs, which have proven successful in other countries in slowing the spread of AIDS among drug addicts, is also examined. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, remembers the struggle to get the Clinton administration to support such programs in the United States, knowing that without them the epidemic would continue to spread unchecked. "You could see it coming," says Fauci. "The handwriting was on the wall for a long time."
"Out of Control" also reports the results of studies from the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina which shed light on a complex reality that helps explain why heterosexual transmission among African Americans is so common. Black men are more than twice as likely as white men to have multiple female partners at the same time, these studies show. Rates of all sexually transmitted diseases are higher among African Americans than other groups, and once those rates start to rise, says Dr. Jim Thomas of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "It starts a cycle. Because now when a person goes to have sex with someone, the chances that the new partner is already infected are relatively high."
And because homosexuality and bisexuality carry such a strong stigma in black America, African American men may choose to hide their sexual orientation. Men who have sex with men, and then also have sex with women without necessarily telling their female partners about their male encounters, are one of the topics covered in back to back roundtable discussions led by Jennings and Moran. Black men and women talk openly about sexual patterns in black America, denial, secrecy, and shame. "I know of few communities as conservative as the African American community, especially about sex," says Debra Fraser-Howze, CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS in New York. "And when it comes to homosexuality, it's a real problem. Nobody wants to talk about it."
Moran also reports on the role of the churches, traditionally the most powerful source of political and social activism in black America. Black churches have been silent on AIDS, says The Rev. Calvin Butts Jr., Rector of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "When you see the numbers going up, you know you have not done enough," he says. Adds The Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston: "I see the black church being challenged as never before. There are going to have to be some tough conversations within the black church, because the black church is the only thing that black people have left. And too many young people are dying because Black leaders have failed their children."
"Out of Control: AIDS in Black America" was produced by Elizabeth Arledge; Senior Producer is Kayce Freed Jennings. The Executive Producer is Tom Yellin.