Dec. 1 marks the countdown to Christmas Day, but more importantly it is a powerful reminder that the fight against HIV and AIDS continues.
In 1988, World AIDS Day was established by the World Health Organization with the support of the United Nations.
Twenty-eight years later, World AIDS Day has grown to be the biggest global health day to raise awareness, unite and support those living with HIV/AIDS, and remember those who have died.
It has been more than 30 years since the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported. What we know for sure is that the disease can affect any one, any age, any sexual orientation and from any place in the world.
We also know that while HIV is no longer considered a death sentence, there is currently no cure for AIDS and there is no vaccine that can prevent or treat HIV infection.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation states that antiretroviral therapy can reduce the presence of the virus in the body, but not eliminate it.
What has slightly changed is the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and the increase of free testing, resources and education.
More than 35 million people have died of HIV/AIDS, and historically considered one of the most destructive pandemics. Compared with other races and ethnicities, the African-American community suffers the most severe burden of HIV in the United States. African Americans account for a higher proportion of new cases, those living with HIV and those diagnosed with AIDS.
“I’m 45 years old, an HIV/AIDS educator, and positive,” said Spencer Collins, the founder and co-CEO of B.L.A.C. Male Productions, Inc., which is the acronym for Black Leaders in Art & Cinema. “After a routine checkup, I remember finding out my status and, as an educator, I felt embarrassed, guilty and disappointed with myself.”
In an instant, Collins became a part of the harsh statistics. Reports indicated that in 2014, an estimated 496,500 African Americans were living with HIV, representing 41 percent of all Americans living with the virus.
“What I realized is that knowing my status was far more important than the when, how and where,” Collins said. The reality is that about 14 percent of African Americans living with HIV have no idea they are infected.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation reports that HIV infection can lack symptoms for many years and can emerge later in life. The only sure way to know if you are positive is to get tested. Symptoms can include:
• Diarrhea that lasts more than a week.
• Dry, flaky skin.
•Fever that comes and goes.
• Heavy night sweats.
• Persistent tiredness.
• Rapid weight loss.
• Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, groin or neck.
• Symptoms specific to infection of certain areas of the body, such as headaches for the brain and cough for the lungs.
• And white spots on the tongue, mouth or throat.
“As one of the many solutions to the problem, I operate B.L.A.C. Male Productions, Inc. with Dr. Percy Brown with the focus to rid the world of HIV one person at a time through outreach, education, accessible testing, entertainment, and whatever else it takes, starting with our community which is disproportionately affected by this and so many other diseases,” Collins said. “Our mission is to give a voice to those that have none by bringing their stories to life on stage and on screen while affirming and empowering them to be themselves.”
In 2015, about 79 percent of African Americans diagnosed with HIV were getting HIV medical care within three months, but only 51 percent received continuous HIV medical care.
The Black Aids Institute reports the following facts: HIV/AIDS was among the leading causes of death for black men and women in the U.S.; blacks are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but represent over 50 percent of all new HIV infections.
“I didn’t understand how I could have full knowledge of this disease and the ways to prevent it, but still get infected,” Collins said. “So I began to search within myself and look deeper for a reason and discovered that my desperate need for another same-gender loving individual left me susceptible to the virus and I stopped protecting me to find him.”
Through his organization, Collins is on the front line experiencing the pain and hurt in the African-American community that has not yet been addressed.
“Most of us are walking zombies disconnected from reality or dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “This clouds our ability to make rational judgment and think clearly.”
Collins gets candid about his own choices.
“Not to make excuses, but for instance in my case dealing with the trauma of being a black man in American, I seek validation through love,” he said. Collins doesn’t mean that he lacks love from friends and family, but he feels no love or little love from the world.
“I wanted to love ‘him’ so bad and ‘him’ to love me, that for a minute, in that second, I stopped loving me enough to make sure I was protecting myself 24/7,” Collins admits. “That one mistake changed my whole life.”
Most can relate that love and connection to human beings can overpower the need to be logical and in control. “It only takes one time to slip and you too could be HIV positive,” Collins said. “Our infections are not about a lack of knowledge, but instead a lack of self-love and the urgency to protect ourselves.”
For the past 5 years, B.L.A.C. Male Productions has hosted AIDS Awareness events three times a year: Dec. 1 in observance of World AIDS Day; National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7, and National HIV Testing Month in June.
“Our highly anticipated events have become a magnet for other liked-minded people, public figures and celebrities who generously lend their voices to carry our message and mission,” Collins said. “I’ve always been affected by World AIDS Day because of the amount of black people that were diagnosed with this disease. It’s always been a responsibility I took on to advocate for testing, save our community through education and help make a difference.”
Free sexually transmitted disease testing is available at AIDS Healthcare Foundation Wellness Centers. Testing usually takes about 30 minutes and lab results are available within three to seven days. For HIV testing, a certified testing counselor will draw blood, perform a finger stick test or mouth swab.
“To show our appreciation for their time, on Dec. 3 at Vintage Hollywood, we will honor three individuals for their contributions to the LGBTQ communities,” Collins said. “This year’s honorees are Tru Evolution Director Of Behavioral Health Valerie Spencer, a transgender and HIV activist; Jayce Baron, the writer-author and host of “Kiss & Tell;” and Marcus Wilson Smith, an executive producer at KTLA Television.
“Through musical performances and special guest appearances, we hope to transform the stigma still attached to the acronym HIV by replacing it with the words: Helping Increase Vitality and create hope for a better future.”
A special award will be given to actress Countess Vaughn of TV One’s Hollywood Divas.
“We will always take a moment to recognize people in the community who have helped to make a difference in this fight by volunteering their time and energy to those in need since the epidemic began over 30 years ago,” Collins said.
For more information about B.L.A.C. Male Productions events, call (617) 304-3505.
CDC – www.cdc.gov
AIDS Healthcare Foundation – www.aidshealth.org
The Black Aids Institute – www.blackaids.org
Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy – www.hhs.gov/ohaidp
Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for her column in The Wave.