Black AIDS Institute’s President Urges To End HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Phil Wilson of Black AIDS institutes says the HIV/AIDS battle is ‘winnable.’

Against a 30-year backdrop of stigma, discrimination and fear, Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute has a powerful vision to build an AIDS-free Black America, according to Rolling Out.

AIDS is our problem, impacting our people and we must create viable  solutions,” said the longtime AIDS activist. “Black people often forget how great we are as a people. We’re greater than slavery, the Middle Passage, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and three recessions.  I believe that we have the resources, innovation and willpower to end AIDS in Black America.”

Wilson’s vision to end AIDS has led to the formation of the Black AIDS Institute in 1999. The Institute is the only U.S. organization that addresses HIV/AIDS policy, treatment, research and prevention issues focused exclusively on Black people. With chapters in fifteen cities, the Black AIDS Institute is one of the leaders in the fight to end AIDS. But the battle has been both deadly and costly.

After losing friends to the virus and witnessing its devastating impact on communities of color, Wilson expanded his fight against the disease on all fronts — from policy to research, to promoting inclusiveness of Blacks in clinical trials, to creating and cultivating others to design more culturally relevant prevention models. “I can’t just walk away,” Wilson says. “Yes, HIV/AIDS fatigue does set in at times but I can’t stop or turn my back on my community. This battle is truly winnable because HIV is 100 percent preventable. So we need to make sure that people are aware of their status, get educated, get access to treatment immediately if they are positive and stay compliant with their treatment.”

Wilson credits strong partnerships with other health and social service organizations working on social issues such as affordable housing, mental health or employment as critical links. In addition to training, policy development, advocacy, testing and counseling, the Institute also hosts an annual celebrity-packed World AIDS day tribute called Heroes in the Struggle. This year’s producer, director, and activist was Lee Daniels, creator of the hit television series “Empire” who was honored along with a host of others.

“One agency can’t fight this disease alone. It takes committed people and groups working in all areas to address AIDS from politicians to scientists, to the HIV-positive young person who has a personal story to share with others, we all have a part in this war,” says Wilson.

The daunting news is that African Americans still remain at the epicenter of the deadly disease. While African-Americans and other black communities only represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, they are nearly half — 44 percent — of all new HIV infections reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, the greatest impact of new infection rates is among young Black gay and bisexual men.

It’s a terrible blow for young men who learn of their HIV status but don’t really understand what they should do now that they have it,” says Wilson. “So education, awareness and getting positive people immediately into treatment as prevention remains paramount to help save lives.”

Wilson also reminds us that when HIV was first reported 30 years ago, there was misinformation, stigma, blame and discrimination in the black community. “Many Black people said that AIDS was just a White, gay, male disease. I knew they didn’t understand the disease or its dynamics,” says Wilson. “From its beginning, AIDS has always been a Black disease affecting our community disproportionately than others.” Wilson cites the initial atmosphere of blame, stigma and shame for creating an environment where many African Americans did not truly understand how to protect themselves from acquiring AIDS or delayed treatment or testing because of fear of ostracism and homophobia.

Despite the wealth of education over the last 30 years, many Blacks still didn’t know the science of the disease, how to prevent it, and if they acquired it, what treatment options are now available to them.” Wilson concedes that accessing treatment can be challenging. It may not be available or easy to reach without transportation or in some small, rural towns, no one wants to be seen at the HIV/AIDS clinic. It still has a dire social stigma that can lead to a loss of employment, partner violence or homelessness.

Wilson understands how complex the battle is to end AIDS in Black America. Yet, he remains a man focused on this very mission. He believes that awareness, education, prevention, access to quality care, treatment and compliance as the best tools for the eradication of HIV/AIDS in Black America.

A conversation with the Black AIDS Institute’s president and chief executive officer, by Black AIDS institute.

Where are we in the HIV/AIDS epidemic as we participate in the 2016 International AIDS Conference?

We have a good-news, bad-news scenario when it comes to HIV in the United States. The good news is that in 2016, you can’t deny that we’ve made progress, and you can’t deny that there’s a promise out there of what is possible regarding prevention and treatment. The bad news is that there’s not really any clear indication that we are going to actualize that promise. People confuse the possibility with the achievement of it. New tools exist that can potentially end the epidemic, but people get it twisted—they think having the capacity is the same as doing it.

You have to stay in the game until you have actually done it.

What are some of the barriers to achieving an end to the epidemic?

A percentage of folks think it’s already done. A percentage of folks aren’t even aware of the possibility. They’re not aware of the new technology and the new tools and the different ways that we can prevent HIV. There are folks who are working in HIV who don’t have the skills and the knowledge they need to implement these new technologies and use these new tools.

Then you have some communities that are taking advantage of the tools to great results, and some communities that aren’t. These tools could reduce the HIV/AIDS disparities between Black communities and other racial and ethnic groups. But what I fear is that they’re not going to reduce them; they’re going to actually exacerbate them, because when one community has access and utilizes the resources and another community either doesn’t have access or doesn’t utilize the tools, it exacerbates the disparity. We’re already seeing that Black communities and Latino communities are not benefiting from the new positive breakthroughs as much as White communities are.

How can the International AIDS Conference help when it comes to those challenges?

Part of the challenge that we’re facing today is that HIV has fallen off the radar. We no longer know that the problem exists. What I hope the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, will do is provide an opportunity for us to shine the spotlight on the AIDS epidemic in Black communities again.

I’m hoping there will be excitement about the meeting being in South Africa. I think that there are going to be opportunities to showcase some lessons learned in Africa and, by showcasing those lessons learned, an opportunity for us to showcase, quite frankly, the lessons that need to be learned in dealing with the Black community in the U.S.

I’m hoping we can utilize that awareness to raise science and treatment literacy in Black communities in the U.S. so we can use that awareness and remind Black communities that this is a winnable battle. Then we want to lay out how the battle can be won and what role each of us needs to play to win.

HIV is a serious problem and a real threat to the nation and, as any other threat, it should be fought against altogether. Knowing that there is a hardworking and self-motivated man able to help Black people unite and lead them in their fight against the deadly disease we can  hope that the battle won’t be lost.

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