State HIV cases rising mainly among blacks, report finds

Mike Zacharias

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, populations of color are disproportionately affected by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In 2000, blacks represented 44 percent of newly reported HIV infections in Minnesota, while only making up 3 percent of the state’s population, said Tracy Sides, the department’s HIV/STD surveillance coordinator.

This marks the first time in state history blacks topped the white population in the number of new infections.

Al Clark, an Aliveness project volunteer who is also HIV positive, said the toll the virus is taking on the black community is getting out of control.

“We need to communicate and do more education,” said Clark, 48. “We need to do more in church. We need to do more in school. We need to get out and reach out to these people.”

Black women had one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Minnesota last year – 90 times higher than white women – Sides said. The percentage is due in part to the low number of cases among white women.

Because of these statistics, the Department of Health awarded grants to community organizations working toward prevention and testing of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in the black community.

“We need to respond with providing prevention education programs targeting those individuals,” said Gary Novotny, who heads the department’s HIV/STD Prevention Programs Unit. “The best way to reach those individuals at risk is through community-based programming.”

Grants were awarded to community organizations on the merits of their proposals.

Testing programs offer cheek swabbing tests as an alternative to blood tests used by clinics, allowing tests to be conducted anywhere.

“The strategy here is to train (community organizations) to do this simple, convenient HIV test so people can learn their HIV status without running to a clinic,” Novotny said.

In order to fight the threat of HIV/AIDS in the black community, James McHie is taking a sabbatical from his studies in agricultural and biological science at the University. The organization he works for, the African-American AIDS Task Force, received one of the 10 Department of Health grants.

“What we provide is culturally specific resources for African Americans, resources for health service and accommodations,” said McHie, an HIV/STD program coordinator for the task force. Through his work, McHie said he sees the need for HIV education in the black community.

“The African-American people (are) a very conservative group of people,” McHie said. “When it comes to sex, they don’t talk about it.”

Community action is the correct approach to the issue of HIV, McHie said.

While more community programs might be a step toward reducing the disproportionate number of black people affected by HIV, some people think more action is still needed.

“One misunderstanding in the society we have is we think we can do HIV education one time (in high school),” said Lorraine Teel, executive director of the state’s largest HIV/AIDS organization, the Minnesota AIDS Project. “But with other public health problems … we know that we have to do ongoing education in a variety of settings … so the message is reinforced.

“But we don’t do that with HIV because we don’t like to talk about sex and drugs,” Teel said.

The government is moving in the right direction, but is transferring too many resources from other HIV problem areas to address the racial disparities of these infections, she said.

“We can’t play this game of shifting resources from one community to another,” Teel said. “Because we still have enormous HIV infections occurring within the larger gay/bisexual men’s community.”

The state needs to allocate more resources and engage more people in schools, the work force and religious communities to work toward basic HIV education, Teel said.

“It can’t just be done by the Minnesota Department of Health.”


Mike Zacharias welcomes comments at [email protected] or 627-4070 x3234