August 9th, 2008
11:10 AM ET

AIDS: The Cavalry is not coming to save us

Program Note: In CNN’s Black in America, Soledad O’Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/28/art.seele.jpg]
Editor's Note:
This morning the Black AIDS Institute released a report entitled “Left Behind! Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic” The report praises U.S. efforts to address HIV worldwide, but criticizes what it terms a weaker response to the epidemic at home.

According to the report:

  • There are more black Americans living with HIV than the total HIV populations in seven of the 15 countries receiving PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).
  • In areas such as Detroit, Washington D.C. and the Deep South, HIV rates among segments of the black community approach those of countries in Africa.
  • If black America were its own country, it would rank 16th in people living with HIV; 105th in life expectancy and 88th in infant mortality worldwide.
  • The U.S. response to its domestic epidemic is so weak that the country would fail to qualify for its own emergency AIDS relief program.

Pernessa Seele, who founded the group Balm in Gilead to disseminate accurate information about AIDS to black churches across the U.S, shares with us her view:

Pernessa Seele
Founder/CEO, The Balm In Gilead

I lift my hat off to CNN for its series on Black In America. Having grown up in the segregated South (Lincolnville, S.C.) and now at the age of 53 living in Richmond, Virginia, I can certainly speak of some of the changes and some of the “same ole thing” that black people encounter daily in these great United States. Health care is one of those areas that I must point to as the “same ole thing”, particularly the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS among African-Americans.

The response to AIDS in Black America has been awful. The average American (black and white) can only relate to the devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa, with no clue of the horrendous suffering Black Americans are enduring right here at home. America’s response to AIDS in Africa has been billions of dollars more than its response to its black citizens at home.

As Founder/CEO of The Balm In Gilead, a non- profit organization building the capacity of faith communities to address life threatening diseases, especially HIV/AIDS, I am privileged to work in both Africa and African-American communities and witness not only the similarities of suffering but also the very unequal response and caring.

The world has been very consumed with the devastation of AIDS in Africa. Great! However, there should be a worldwide out-cry that 1 in 20 persons living in Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, is living with the AIDS virus. Over 80% of these persons living with HIV in Washington, DC, are Black Americans.

The HIV prevalence rate in Washington, DC, (5%) is fast approaching the levels of infection in Uganda (5.4%). I don’t have time to go through the list of state after state that reflect the disproportionate rate of AIDS among blacks, such as Georgia where 70% of persons living with HIV in the state are Black Americans.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was just passed by Congress last week, will once again deliver billions of dollars to 15 nations to address HIV prevention and treatment. Once again, GREAT!

Sadly, the rate of HIV/AIDS in Black America ranks higher than seven of those foreign countries that will receive those PEPFAR dollars in the coming months. The seven countries that have less of an HIV positive population than Black America are: Guyana, Rwanda, Haiti, Namibia, Vietnam, Botswana, and Ethiopia. Listen! There is no outcry to the suffering of Black America!

The African-American faith community is beginning to understand its essential role in addressing HIV/AIDS in Black America. As in the days of my yester years, our churches were those points of light that offered education, compassion and service to America’s darker citizens when our government’s adequate response to our needs and concerns were essentially missing.

Today, as many black churches throughout the U.S. are coming to the forefront as model programs of providing comprehensive HIV/AIDS education, testing, housing and other compassionate services, far too many continue to be silent. The vast majority of Black Americans are touched and reached weekly by the tentacles of an African-American church. Furthermore, the second largest employer of black people in America remains the African-American church.

For 19 years, The Balm In Gilead has been providing training and capacity development to our faith leaders and laity in helping churches to become sustainable community health promotion and disease prevention institutions, while engulfed in the ever-flowing stream of the Holy Spirit. At this critical moment in Black America and in public health history regarding HIV/AIDS, I invite all church leaders and members to re-dedicate themselves to the role of “leader” and seek God’s guidance in dismantling AIDS stigma and providing an adequate, effective response to HIV/AIDS in their respective communities.

When I was a child in Lincolnville, S.C., with various illnesses, my mom and I sat in “colored only” hospital waiting rooms and had to enter the doctors’ offices through the back door in order to be seen. It did not matter what time we arrived – always early in the morning – or the nature of our medical distress, we would not be seen by the doctor or the medical staff at the hospital until every white person had been served that day.

Waiting was the life of black folks when I was a child, particularly in areas of health and medicine. Today, Black Americans are still waiting for adequate health care and an appropriate response to its suffering regarding HIV/AIDS. However, the waiting is much longer! The world is in front of us!! It appears that the U.S. Cavalry is not coming to save us.

We must depend on ourselves! Every Black church in America is needed and required!

Filed under: Black in America • Pernessa Seele
soundoff (159 Responses)
  1. Dr.Namwanja Paul -Uganda.www.acmco.net

    HIV/AIDS is a very, very complicated disease. It’s so far, a disease that has beaten human kind and all the technology one can think of. It’s a disease that has brought confusion among people of all walks of life, including scientists of our times, to the extent that, there is abandonment of tracks or routes to treatment discoveries, to unknown ones, as shown in the previous successful discoveries of the prevention of mother to Child transmission of HIV, to nothing more.
    We have been made to think that some countries have had successful wins on the HIV/AIDS, as shown by statistics being shown around, however these statistics are not only being contested by other researchers, but also, do get disputed by the picture on the ground of those suffering in rural Africa or ones that make their way to hospitals, of no medical doctors or drugs, but nursing assistants and social workers.
    There are big sums of money planned and handed to accounts of Governments and other big ‘Not for profit organizations’, which actually show little change in the true colors, painted by HIV/AIDS especially in rural Africa.
    There will be much impact in the control of spread, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, when grant routes from donors are shortened, even if it means getting directly to beneficiaries, as we see Banks do. Governments should only give policies but as much as possible, not given a total control of grants.I think the US government’s hand to poor countries with HIV, than in some states in America is well thought, because it(US) had to narrow the huge difference in GDP ratios of an African in Africa and one in US. Here i`m of the view that one in US can afford to buy the drug, moreover available in drug store everywhere in US with the few dollars, any job can raise, than in Africa where, it takes one to gather drugs not available in the country and also where no funds or incomes are available for the sick to get ARVs.

    July 30, 2008 at 6:38 am |
  2. justaseer

    This type of overstanding can only be receive by one who is able to shift from a micro to a macro world view. If that is not possible then it does not matter what evidence I offer towards your enlightenment.

    July 30, 2008 at 3:10 am |
  3. Maria Davis

    I am a 48 yr old African American women living in Harlem N.Y.and as I read many of the comments on this blog, all I can say is WOW!!! All the finger pointing and judging we all do when we are not affected or infected personally by diffult situations.. As I approach my 10th year as an AIDS survivor, diagnosed with HIV since 1995. It is very sad to know that people are still igonarant when it comes to this disese. Never have I blamed anyone for my HIV/AIDS status or my lack of self love. There were many contributing factors as a child for why I looked for love in men instead of myself. I could blame it on my mothers own lack of self love or even the break up of my mother and father as a child because of his physical and mental abuse towards my mother.
    Oh yeah I forgot, why should I come up with such stupid excuses,
    I got AIDS and I should have known better. Racism, discrimnation and
    igorance speaks very loud in many of these comments and many of
    us need a reality check Blacks and Whites. There is a biblical saying
    he without sin throw the first stone. We all have skeltons in our
    closets some hide them better than others but the most important thing for us all to remember is that human lives are being wasted.
    African Americans are being infected at higher numbers because of
    many different crisis and distractions in our communities. The break down of the family structure and low self esteem are two of the major problems.
    We need lots of GODS love and to love one another enough to get involve and help each other. Education is very important
    and people taking pride in themselves and there community. Martin Luther King died for equality not just for Blacks but for all mankind.

    God Bless You.....Maria Davis

    July 30, 2008 at 3:06 am |
  4. Fred ENO, Dallas Tx.

    I travelled with Ms.Seele through six African countries and witnessed firsthand the marvelous work that the Balm in Gilead does in engaging the faith community in the fight against HIV/AIDS not just in Africa but also among the African American community here in the United States. Two programs will attest to the latter: The Black HIV/AIDS Institute and The Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of HIV/AIDS.

    Ms. Seele's commitment and dedication to this cause is commendable. However, I am struck by both the tone of the report and some of the reactions thereof. Any suggestion that the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the African American community is being neglected as a result of increased funding for AIDS prevention in Africa is ludicrous and petty.
    $50billion over five years for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis prevention and control in a population of over three hundred million people in the countries benefitting from the PEPFAR program in Africa will not deprive a single American, Black, White, Latino or Asian from having access to treatment in the United States. Moreso, the notion that this is all charity and benevolence from the United States for which the US gains nothing is an oversimplification of the issue, which I beg to discuss another day.

    That HIV/AIDS prevalence among certain African American communities is higher than in several African countries is a pointer to several factors, many of which could be found in the CNN series on BLACK IN AMERICA. It would not be surprising if those images and commentaries mirror the frustrations of Ms. Seele, who sees the Black Church as the last bastion of hope for the healing of AIDS in the African American community through which Calvary will come, yet the same church is shutting its doors on its own people who are infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

    Fred A. ENO

    July 30, 2008 at 2:19 am |
  5. Katherine Biel

    Think about this, Mark

    *1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be a victim of sexual assault in
    their lifetime.
    * In 2006, there were 272,350 victims of sexual assault.
    * Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.

    How many of the rapist alone do you think have AIDS? Not counting other problems with the environment that people are 'responsible for'. I do believe in personal accountability, but its ridiculous to expect people living in extreme poverty to have the resources to avoid this disease. I've heard the comparison about poor people in earlier generations, but the truth is that most of them lived in better environments (food was better, family structure was supported, and there was a real community, as well as better housing) than they do these days. Its a complex of web of support that is taken away from the poor these days. Research has shown that women with an intact family and a father are much less likely to be raped in Europe. The apparent reason seems to be that perpetrators are afraid of recrimination, not that the women are somehow less 'responsible'.

    I think it might be educational for you to be a poor black woman for a year of your life. I wish it were possible. Maybe if you just moved to really bad part of town and tried to 'rub shoulders' and 'watch TV' on a limited salary? Seriously, quit being so arrogant.

    July 30, 2008 at 2:11 am |
  6. Ray

    This makes me very sad. I knew the HIV rate in the black community was high, but this is too high and is unacceptable no matter what race you are.
    I'm also disappointed to read so many opinions posted by blacks as to how this is a government conspiracy. Why not just actually stick your head in the sand so you'll match what you are figuratively are doing? Even if Bush him self had labs engineering HIV, there is no excuse for the deplorable numbers of infection we are seeing in the black population.
    Yes, people need and should take personal responsibility. And yes, HIV is 100% preventable, however I feel many want to turn their backs and say they did it to them selves, but like it or not African-Americans are part of our greater community and we all need to do something to help.
    Black leaders need to lead the charge and get the word out or soon they'll have no one to preach to.
    My black brother and sister, please wake up.

    July 30, 2008 at 1:24 am |
  7. CSA James

    "Hey, don't stick your.... hand... in that meat grinder, you might lose it."
    "Hey, I stuck my and in the hole, I lost it... I may bleed to death."
    "Want a band-aid?"

    I'm a cruel bastard eh? Blame OUR government? Ridiculous.

    There are plenty of diseases that strike old white male CEO's, real epidemic numbers that really are color blind, that really do top the mortality charts not only in our own country, but across the world. Heart Disease. Cancer. Strokes. Aids isn't even close. Panic in the streets? What cavalry? Indeed. How racist of me for not wanting to be held responsibile for you sticking something where you aught not, and it getting you hurt. How intolerant and hateful I must be for not wanting to fund from my own wallet the financial necessities required to fix some one elses problem. Marxism is not the answer.

    I wish you peace, wisdom and prosperity.

    July 30, 2008 at 12:54 am |
  8. Justcare

    AIDS is totally preventable, there is no reason for this ecipidemic in the Black communities.

    I can not understand why Blacks across the globe seem not to LOVE themselves as other races do.

    You can not keep blaming it on the past. Learn from the past and move on. But do not forget it.

    Are Blacks in America inslaving themselves, via babies having babies, absent fathers, drugs, lack of education, no family structure,
    think someone owes you something. Get up and make your life better.

    Blacks need to make education a top priority. The government can dump all the money in the world into schools, but if you do not have the backing of the Parents it will be wasted.

    Many Blacks are very successful, but the percentage to total population of American Blacks is much low than other racial groups.

    Blacks need to listen to Bill Crosby and Obama.

    The dropout rate is higher how than in the past, why?

    Too many girl don't know who the father of their child is, why?

    Too many Blacks are doing exactly what the KKK and groups like them want.

    July 30, 2008 at 12:49 am |
  9. Bob

    Katherine: I might agree with you if you said the mantra of personal responsibility might be couched somewhat in an elitist attitude, perhaps subtle racism – a recognition that blacks cannot be responsible, therefore nothing need be done. So no, the cavalry is NOT coming, because the cavalry has passed judgement on this community : that if white people can manage this problem by curbing their behavior then maybe blacks can too, or at least, if they can't then they're going to end up grinding against this epidemic until they either take ownership of their problems or go extinct. Unless black people can turn their lemons into lemonade, despite all obstacles, despite the unfairness, then no lesson will be learned, defective modes of behavior will persist, and the black community will remain forever an outsider, a dependent and an irritation to white society. AIDs hits the black community harder because they're collectively doing something wrong. There is no way around this simple truth. No one held the hand of the white man coming out of the Dark Ages of history. Poor whites have no one to blame for their failures. Why is it taken for granted that white people should alter their behavior to control both epidemics and pregnancies in order to preserve their lives and finances, whereas its acceptable for blacks to invoke a villain, an excuse, and pass a bill to "the government"? Anyone who expects the government to run our lives and take care of us from cradle to grave are in fact still slaves. True freedom comes with self-reliance and ingenuity. Why would any truly proud black person want to say the whites solved their AIDs problem? Anyway.. for whites to "solve" the AIDs problem for the black community would require a level of cultural intervention I doubt they'd be comfortable with. So we're stuck in this intolerable situation where blacks won't help themselves and we whites have to respect their diverse culture for PC reasons. We're indulging the victim mentality because it would be political death to say what needs to be said.

    July 30, 2008 at 12:16 am |
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