Essence Festival panel tackles issue of HIV in black community

Kym found out she was HIV-positive when her husband of 10 years was dying from AIDS.

“He was 33 and looked like he was 76,” she said.

Teresa found out her then-18-year-old son, Martinez, had HIV after he took a blood test as part of a physical for the Air Force.

The two women, who used only their first names, were joined by Grammy-winning pop singer Alicia Keys, a national television commentator and a local HIV expert on Friday for a panel discussing the high rate of HIV infection in the black community.

The program was part of the Essence Festival’s Empowerment Experience, which offered dozens of hourlong panels featuring highly regarded activists, intellectuals and entertainers from within the black community.

Keys said she first grew interested in the issue of HIV/AIDS after she released her first album and went on a trip to South Africa.

There, she said, she encountered numerous men, women and children with the virus, many of whom didn’t have the money to pay for needed medications.

“It became my passion to be the voice for people who weren’t being heard,” she said.

That passion soon led to her advocating for HIV-positive individuals at home, as well.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans are the group most affected by HIV in the United States, with a per capita infection rate eight times that of white people.

Members of the panel said the shame associated with having HIV is one of the reasons people either don’t get tested or don’t disclose their status.

“We are still digging out from the hole of shame and stigma we created,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, a television commentator and former Tulane University professor who moderated the panel.

Kym said she was shocked when she found out her husband had known he was HIV-positive for 10 years and hadn’t disclosed it to her. But she said she was determined not to let the virus ruin her life and to be an advocate for others who were infected.

“If this is the card I have been dealt, I want to have a hand in how it plays out, and I want to play it out well,” she said.

Teresa said her son has been living with HIV for 18 years. She said it’s unfortunate that many of the misconceptions that were generated about the virus in the 1980s still exist.

“It’s OK to hug them, to feed them, to let them sleep in your bed,” she said about people who are HIV-positive.

Lisa Moreno-Watson, a physician and professor at LSU Medical Center, said regular HIV testing is the most powerful weapon against infection. She said the CDC is trying to make HIV testing a regular part of health maintenance.

Members of the panel stressed that even people in long-term committed relationships should get tested for HIV. Moreno-Watson said she recently treated a churchgoing woman who had caught the virus from her husband of 40 years.

Because of the advance in anti-viral drugs, she said, the outlook for HIV-positive individuals is far brighter than it used to be.

“It’s not a death sentence,” she said.

In some cases, individuals can get their viral loads so low through the use of drugs they can even have children, Moreno-Watson said.

About 300 people attended the panel.

Rasheda Gulley, 27, of Birmingham, Alabama, said she felt the combination of different speakers provided an excellent resource on what is often a taboo subject.

“It gave us a diverse knowledge base,” she said.