AIDS remains top killer of African Americans

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HIV AIDSFORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - AIDS is not the bad word it used to be in Broward County, Fla.'s black neighborhoods.

Once such a taboo subject that many black people would not acknowledge the health crisis in their communities, AIDS and the virus that can lead to it, HIV, now are important topics in an important black institution: the church.

Black preachers are breaking the silence, calling from the pulpit for abstinence and AIDS testing. Health workers say it has made people more receptive to awareness campaigns.

Those efforts have helped lead to a decline in the number of new infections, Broward health officials said.

AIDS is the No. 1 killer of black people between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wednesday, local health departments, social services agencies and some churches will distribute pamphlets on the virus and offer AIDS testing on National Black AIDS Awareness Day.

"It's a crisis in our black community," said Donna Markland, Florida Department of Health regional minority AIDS coordinator in Broward.

Blacks comprise 21 percent of the county's population, and "one in every 58 black people is living with AIDS or HIV," Markland said. "That's a crisis."

The numbers are even worse in Palm Beach County, where one in every 42 black people is living with either the virus or the disease, and in Miami-Dade County, where one in 43 black residents has HIV or AIDS.

To slow the spread of AIDS and HIV, a group of black preachers formed Churches United to Stop HIV (CUSH) to break the silence about the illness. Community groups are learning about the illness and are passing on what they know to others.

"To some extent, the silence is being broken," said Spencer Lieb, senior epidemiologist at the state health department's Bureau of HIV/AIDS. "But there's still a great disparity" in the number of blacks who contract HIV and other racial and ethnic groups.

One in 207 white Broward residents and one in 216 Hispanics are living with AIDS or HIV, according to state statistics.

The good news is that testing for blacks is up 60 percent through 2005 in Broward since 1999. Since then, the number of annual new cases has decreased by nearly half from 655 that year to 368 in 2005.

"People testing to know about their status are less likely to transmit HIV, and cut back on risky behavior," Lieb said.

The state health department last year issued a report titled Silence Is Death: The Crisis of HIV/AIDS in Florida's Black Communities, aimed at engaging more people in the fight.

"Denial is death," said the Rev. Rosalind Osgood, an assistant minister at Mount Olive Baptist Church and director of its development corporation.

The Fort Lauderdale church's Angels of Hope is an AIDS ministry started in 1998 as a support group for people with HIV and AIDS and their families. Osgood said the corporation provides low-cost rental housing for people living with AIDS or HIV.

But other churches are reluctant to follow suit.

"Overall, black church theology doesn't embrace us having an honest conversation about our sexual eroticism," said Osgood, who has made a personal commitment to discuss AIDS in all her sermons.

Among many black immigrants, the stigma prevents discussion, said Magaly Prezeau of Minority Development & Empowerment, a social services agency serving the Haitian community and other minorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Some Haitians fear testing positive could lead to their deportations, she said.

But that fear also has changed behavior in some cases, Prezeau said. "There's more talk about monogamy and abstinence," she said.

Some young activists have decided to fight the epidemic on their own. Donovan Thomas, 25, who runs a marketing company in Deerfield Beach, Fla., created an awareness campaign with health officials.

He wants to deliver AIDS awareness to black communities on a daily basis and not just on days like National Black AIDS Awareness Day.

Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself is a multi-media saturation of billboards, yard signs, bus benches, fliers, brochures, event signage and kiosks in English and Creole "to communicate the seriousness," Thomas said. "AIDS is killing off blacks. We must take ownership of our actions."

Thomas' campaign incorporates "street soldiers" armed with information and mobile testing units who will go to clubs and places where young people hang out.

Thomas said his motivation is simple:

"I have a younger brother and a younger sister," he said. "What you don't know will kill you."

© 2007 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.