WASHINGTON - African-Americans bear the brunt of the HIV crisis in the United States. They are more frequently diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and more likely to die from this disease than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. There are many reasons, but stigma plays a large role.
Testing involves a mere swab of the gums. The process takes only 10 seconds. It could save a life or prevent passing on an infection. It could stem an HIV epidemic in the African-American community.
But stigma - a sense of shame or disgrace - gets in the way.
African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 44 percent of the new cases of HIV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are many reasons. Poverty, which limits access to health care, is one, and so is a lack of information about the disease. Timothy Harrison with the Department of Health and Human Services says stigma "is a huge part of what is deterring people from getting tested, and if they test positive, it may deter them from being linked to care or staying in care."
The U.S. government has a number of programs to reach out to African-Americans. One is National HIV Testing Day.
"If you know your HIV status, you are more likely to take care of yourself, and you are least likely to transmit the virus to somebody else," Harrison said.
Howard University, a historically African-American college, addressed the issue of stigma at a conference last year. Sohail Rana was one of the panelists. Rana said he has seen patients die because of stigma.
"You attach stigma to any illness, you make its outcome 300 percent worse," Rana told VOA.
Civil rights organizations and African-American churches led the movement for equality in the 1960's, but they have been slow to join the movement against HIV/AIDS in the African-American community because of conservative beliefs about homosexuality, sex and IV drug use. That is now changing.
Shavon Arline-Bradley, who directs the health programs at the NAACP, the oldest civil rights group in the U.S., said the NAACP has a program specifically to work with African-American religious leaders.
"What we have decided to do was to identify what messages resonate with parents, what messages resonate with faith leaders and the message is this: there are people dying and you should care. Lives are being lost. You have to care,” she told VOA.
U.S. health agencies are working to get out the information that HIV is preventable, that testing is essential, and HIV is not a death sentence.
The website AIDS.gov says, "Unless the course of the epidemic changes, at some point in their lifetime, an estimated one in 16 black men and one in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection." These rates are at least eight times higher than those for whites.