Maria Davis was 35 when she found out she was HIV positive. A former model and music promoter from the Bronx, her life took an unexpected turn after a routine test for an insurance policy revealed that she had HIV.
“God had another plan for me,” says Maria, an African-American woman who now devotes much of her time to promoting AIDS awareness in the black community. “He needed some big-mouthed chick like me to speak about HIV.” Now Maria, who is also an amfAR Making AIDS History ambassador, gives talks at churches, colleges, high schools, and even on street corners, telling others about her experience.
Thursday, February 7, is the 13th annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The day offers an opportunity for community groups, government agencies, healthcare providers, and individuals to focus attention on African Americans’ vulnerability to HIV and the challenges they face living with the virus.
Black Americans are the most disproportionately affected racial/ethnic group across all sub-populations in the country. While they comprise only 14 percent of the population, African Americans accounted for 44 percent of new HIV infections diagnosed in 2009. Additionally, the HIV infection rate among African-American women is 15 times higher than the rate among white women.
Grammy Award-winning recording star and amfAR Ambassador Janet Jackson recently spoke about HIV in the black community in an op-ed co-authored by amfAR Founding Chairman Dr. Mathilde Krim.
“While everyone is at risk and should know their status, data tell us that communities of color—particularly black women and young, black gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men—are disproportionately affected by the virus. If we're going to create an AIDS-free generation here at home, we need to start investing in resources that will curb the epidemic among these populations.”
Jackson, who has been involved with amfAR for the past 15 years, will be honored for her dedication to the fight against HIV at amfAR’s New York Gala on February 6.
Nearly a quarter of African-American families in the U.S. live in poverty, which can cause people to prioritize daily survival over long-term health concerns such as buying condoms, putting them and their partners at risk for HIV infection. Also, many African Americans fear the stigma of HIV more than infection, and are likely to hide high-risk behavior rather than seek counseling. Furthermore, African Americans are less likely on average than white Americans to get tested or seek proper treatment upon diagnosis.
But the goals for the black community are the same as for every community dealing with HIV, says Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. “We now have better prevention tools, better treatment tools, better biomedical and behavioral tools. We can end the epidemic now. The question is: Will we?”
When Maria Davis was first diagnosed with HIV, she was initially at a loss. “I didn’t know anything about HIV,” she says. “What I knew about HIV was that it was a gay white men’s disease.” Today she is an expert on the virus, and a thriving black woman who happens to be living with HIV. Since learning her status, Maria has run two marathons.
On this National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Maria will be helping her fellow black community members while keeping in mind that one day of awareness is not enough. “I look forward to the day when we don’t have to talk about awareness, to the day when everyone gets tested and knows their HIV status.”
For more information on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events in your community, click here.