We sat down with Phill Wilson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Black AIDS Institute and AIDSVu Advisory Committee Member to discuss his 19-year tenure and the history of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Q: Why is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day particularly important to you this year?
A: This year is bittersweet because I have been involved in efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the beginning, and I recently announced my retirement from the Black AIDS Institute where I served as President and CEO for the last 19 years.
We are at a turning point in the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic and there is a lot of uncertainty. We are not sure if we are going to continue to push forward or if we are going to move backwards. At the Black AIDS Institute, we are preparing for the next generation and its response to HIV/AIDS. I am very proud of the work the Institute has done and our commitment to supporting new leadership. On the one hand, I’m excited about the future of the organization and proud of the work we have done, but this year will be my last National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in my current role as a leader of the Black AIDS Institute.
Q: Your organization, Black AIDS Institute, has been a leading participant in National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day since 1999. What does this awareness day mean to you?
A: It has been an important day in raising awareness about the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic amongst Black communities. It is certainly in alignment with the mission and goals of the Black AIDS Institute, and the Black AIDS Institute is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States that focuses exclusively on Black people.
Our mission at the Black AIDS Institute is to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing traditional Black leaders, institutions and individuals to confront the epidemic in their local communities. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day provides us an opportunity to have a very focused conversation about the impact of HIV/AIDS on Black communities with Black communities themselves and within the larger society as well.
First, you cannot end the AIDS epidemic in America without ending the AIDS epidemic in Black America, and you cannot end the AIDS epidemic in Black America without ending the AIDS epidemic in the southern region of the country.
Q: What changes have you seen with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community since the founding of NBHAAD?
A: Since we began commemorating National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day nineteen years ago, there has been good news and bad news. Without a doubt, we have made tremendous advances in HIV treatment, prevention, and research, as well as in addressing HIV stigma. Unfortunately, these advances have not benefited all communities equally. There continues to be some huge disparities of HIV/AIDS within Black communities as compared with other communities. The HIV mortality rates within Black communities continue to be higher than in other communities, the new infection rate continues to be higher, and the prevalence of HIV among Black people continues to be higher than other groups.
We still have a major problem to address in Black communities, but the good news is that Black communities are mobilized and there are conversations today that were not going on in the late 90’s. However, we are beginning to struggle with HIV/AIDS fatigue. We have generations who are not as aware about the epidemic today. We are also facing exceptional challenges with attacks on HIV funding and a rise in government-initiated stigma. These are the challenges we must confront in 2018 and beyond.
Q: Nearly two-thirds of Black and African-American persons newly diagnosed with HIV in 2015 live in the Southern U.S., the most highly impacted region for all people living with HIV. What factors are contributing to the severity of the epidemic for the Black community in the South?
A: As we look at the projection of HIV/AIDS in 2018 there are two things that cannot be ignored. First, you cannot end the AIDS epidemic in America without ending the AIDS epidemic in Black America, and you cannot end the AIDS epidemic in Black America without ending the AIDS epidemic in the southern region of the country. The highest percentage of Black people live in the south, east of the Mississippi river. When we look at the disproportionate impact the AIDS epidemic has had on Black communities we see it all over the country, but there is nowhere in the country where it is more pervasive than it is in the south. The increasing levels of HIV/AIDS in the Southern U.S. is the canary in the mine shaft that tells us the devastating effect HIV is having in Black communities.
Q: What is the Black AIDS Institute doing to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
We are focusing on six areas of action. One is information dissemination to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and the magnitude of the epidemic. We have been communicating with media organizations and community leaders about the reality of this epidemic.
We have also been initiating community trainings, primarily about the science of HIV/AIDS because we believe that when people understand the science of HIV/AIDS they are more likely to be able to protect themselves. They are more likely to engage in both therapeutic and preventative treatment and are in a better position to address AIDS policy.
We provide technical assistance to providers and health departments and other institutions that are within Black communities and those who serve Black communities to ensure that they are equipped to respond to their unique needs.
We also look at relevant HIV/AIDS policies that impact Black communities to make private- and public-sector recommendations. This includes acknowledging the importance of Affordable Care Act (ACA) policy within Black communities, maintaining the golden objective of the national HIV/AIDS strategy and looking at the impacts of social determinants on health policy, too.
We address the HIV/ AIDS epidemic on the ground by providing direct services such as HIV screenings. We also work to build community support and ensure that people stay in care, because that’s critically important.
Probably most important is our effort to mobilize local communities from a uniquely and unapologetically Black point of view. For example, we recently engaged in a national program to raise awareness about the ACA and helped Black communities participate in the open enrollment period. We are also working on developing a set strategy to address the disparities among affected young Black men and Black women and developing tool kits to respond to those populations as well. In fact, tomorrow we are opening a Black PrEP clinic in Southern Los Angeles.
Q: You’ve been an active partner and advisory committee member for AIDSVu from the beginning. How has AIDSVu helped with your work?
A: AIDSVu is a huge resource. It is important to understand that when we are talking about HIV/AIDS we are talking about a disease and our response to that must be driven by data. With the help of AIDSVu, we have surveillance data today that we have never had before. We now know where the epidemic is down to the ZIP code or census track and that serves as a great tool in creating the proper response to the epidemic. Before AIDSVu it was like looking for car keys on a dark street, and AIDSVu has shined a light on the street to allow us to see exactly were the keys are. When we combine this improved surveillance data with the improved diagnostic tools that are available today–and with today’s improved prevention tools—we find that we have the tools that can potentially end the AIDS epidemic. The role that AIDSVu plays in this is tremendous.