Today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and Illinois health experts are taking time to point out an alarming statistic: African Americans account for almost half of the people living with HIV in the state.
But even within that population, there’s a sub-group that’s disproportionately affected: black adolescents.
Here’s one cautionary tale about black teens and HIV/AIDS.
It involves filmmaker Gina Whitener.
For years she did community outreach around HIV and AIDS.
One population struck a chord with her.
WHITENER: This new generation of kids is this generation that are now in a world that they’ve never known a world where HIV hadn’t existed, really prompted me to do this documentary because they had a story to tell and a voice that needed to be heard in a way that had never been told before.
Whitener was moved enough to put together a 30-minute documentary entitled “A Mirror to the Heart: Breaking the Stigma of HIV/AIDS.”
ambi: documentary up music
Blacks comprise almost 60 percent of adolescent HIV/AIDS cases in Illinois.
Documentary: Roneisha was born with HIV, she’s 15 years old living in a small town in southern Illinois.
But I accept every way because I think everything happens for a reason. I think my reason is because I can go out and give people my life story. I’m not ashamed about what I have.
Whitener expected a lot of help in getting the word out about a life-threatening condition.
Instead, she had a tough time putting together her documentary.
She spoke to dozens of youth who contracted the disease, but not one of them wanted to go on camera. Whitener says this goes back to stigma.
Here’s just one example:
WHITENER: One young lady in particular said ‘you know what, I would really love to tell other girls what’s going on with me and why it’s okay not to have sex and why they really need to focus on school for their future. But my mother has to go to work in the morning and she can’t go to work and tell her boss that the reason she has to take off work is to take me to the doctor.
Public health officials say the stigma of talking about HIV/AIDs is real.
That contributes to more cases, but the African-American population’s staggering rates are made even worse by poverty and racial isolation. And young African-Americans are particularly affected.
WILLIAMSON: Young people in terms of the impact of high school dropout rates. Young people in terms of access to high-quality schools.
Mildred Williamson is the HIV/AIDS section chief at the Illinois Department of Health.
WILLIAMSON: Each one of those items creates or helps perpetuate vulnerability that then can lead to more risk taking.
Williamson says the overall youth rates have doubled in the past decade. She says better sex ed could reduce those rates.
There’re teens who can testify directly about why it’s tough to cut infection rates among young African-Americans.
One of them is Ericka Myles.
She’s 21 years old and was born with HIV, so she didn’t contract it in her teens.
Still, she has a lot to say about prevention.
MYLES: In my generation, with me being born with it, I wasn’t the only one born with it. So there are other males that were born with it in their generation. And I know they’re not out there telling other females.
What she’s getting at is that some young men with HIV-positive status … are not conveying that to their female sex partners. It’s disturbing enough for Myles to repeat this advice:
MYLES: Trust no one but yourself. Always use a condom. Bring a condom to wherever you might be socializing in risky behavior at. Risky behavior means if you’re going to be drinking and smoking and partying.
As for herself, Myles says finding a boyfriend can be hard. She has one of her own right now. And she made sure he definitely knows her status.
Illinois Adolescents living with HIV/AIDS in 2009
Black males 1375
Black females 498
White males 653
White females 124
Hispanic males 435
Hispanic females 93
Music Button: Ancient Astronauts, "Rocket Science", from the CD Into Bass And Time, (ESL)