From July 22 to 27, the United States will host the 19th International AIDS Conference. The conference has not been held in the United States since 1990 because of a travel ban that had restricted people infected with HIV from entering the country. President Barack Obama removed the ban in 2010.
The global conference will be held in the American city worst affected by the pandemic: our nation’s capital, which is also the nation’s HIV capital. Washington, D.C. is predominantly black, and the African American community is the racial group at the epicenter of the epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans represent approximately 14 percent of the American population, but accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV cases in 2009.
A new Frontline documentary, produced by our partner WGBH, explores the story behind these statistics. The film is called “Endgame: AIDS in Black America” It premieres on Tuesday, July 10, at 9 p.m. on PBS.
Phill Wilson is the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, and will be a speaker at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. Wilson has lived with HIV since the 1980s. He is featured in the Frontline documentary along with a 64-year-old great-grandmother named Nel. She was infected with HIV nine years ago when she married a deacon in her church who had the virus but didn’t tell her.
Wilson believes that the stigma of AIDS in black communities can make it extremely difficult for members to reveal their afflictions. "The stigma can be a tremendous barrier to disclosure. It certainly can be a barrier for getting tested, and it can be a barrier for getting treated," he says. "I also think that the way that black gay men experience homophobia in our own communities can be much more devastating than it can be among white gay men, and that can be one of the drivers," Wilson says.
Nel describes her experience of telling her family that she had been infected was "really, really hard."
"Being a mother of five adult children, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother, it was devastating to all of my children," she says. However, she has come to terms with the disease, and has managed to continue living a relatively normal life.
The goal for Wilson is to break down those barriers that are caused by the stigma that AIDS carries in many black communities. "I think that the most important message in this film is that we actually can end the AIDS epidemic in our communities. We have tools to do that. The question now is, will we?"
"At the end of the day, if we're going to end the AIDS epidemic in black communities, black communities have to make a commitment to doing that work." Wilson and his organization want people to get informed, get tested, and get treated. "I'm alive today because I have the love and support of family and friends, and I have access to treatment," he says.