Ask Alexieindia Abrams about her life, and she’ll take the stand. It’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“I was 30 when I tested positive for HIV,” says Abrams, who is black and transgendered. “I’d lived a hard life. About anything bad that could happen to me did, and I brought a lot of that trouble on myself.”
In prison after being charged with drug possession, she was raped, and infected with HIV.
Abrams’ is an important story to tell. Nationally, almost half of those living with HIV and AIDS are black, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Forty-five percent of new infections in 2006, the latest year data were collected by the CDC, were from the black population. Colorado is consistent with the trend. Blacks living in the Centennial State comprise only 3.8 percent of the total population, but more than 17 percent of new HIV cases in the state strike that population.
As of Dec. 31, 2010, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment reports 1,601 black Coloradans are living with HIV/AIDS. By contrast, 7,179 Caucasians and 2,033 Hispanics in Colorado have HIV/AIDS. The remaining 302 patients come from ethnic backgrounds that include Asian, American Indian, multiple race or other.
And, black women in Colorado are 33 percent more likely to test positive for HIV than white women.
Research from the CDC, along with observations from those who work for organizations that reach out to those with HIV and AIDS, point to socioeconomic issues related to poverty.
Ralph Wilmoth, a director with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, says his department has worked to slow the epidemic of HIV and AIDS in the black community. “We provide insurance and AIDS-fund assistance to anyone who is at 400 percent of the poverty level or below.”
And the department provides grant funds to nonprofit groups that reach out to the black population.
Agencies like It Takes a Village.
Imani Latif, the executive director and founder of the Aurora-based healthcare organization, says education is the key to preventing HIV from spreading.
Educating people, and ensuring that testing is readily available, is essential, says Latif. It Takes a Village, designed to help people of color, was founded in 2002 and is one of a several nonprofit organizations that reaches out to those affected by HIV and AIDS in Colorado.
“First of all, it’s easy to spread a disease you don’t know you have,” she said.
CDC studies back up her assertion. In one recent study of homosexual or heterosexual black men, 67 percent of those with HIV were unaware of their infection.
Dr. Donna Mcree, associate director for health equity with the CDC, says the black population also has a higher incidence of other sexually transmitted diseases.
“Access to healthcare is huge,” she said. “Often, when they do test, it’s too late.”
But she holds hope.
“HIV is completely preventable,” she said. “We’ve had stability for a decade, and we’ve seen lower numbers in some areas, like mother to child infection.”
In 2010, she notes, President Barack Obama released a new AIDS strategy that mandated a focus on high-risk populations.
“The CDC is taking action, getting more people tested, and mobilizing the community,” she said.
Latif’s nonprofit organization is taking action, as well.
It Takes a Village helps the burgeoning number of blacks with AIDS or who are HIV positive cope with everything from finding medical help to dealing with their families. One of the programs involves helping HIV-positive people who are released from jail – like Abrams – find their footing back in society.
Latif believes that reaching out to people like Abrams before they contract HIV is an essential next step in alleviating a rampant problem.
“While we reach out to people of all races, the black community really has serious needs,” said Latif, who worked as community coordinator of the New York City Health Department when the AIDS epidemic first broke out in the early ’80s.
“I’ve stayed with it because of all the people I meet who are able to rise to the occasion,” she said. “HIV doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most people who get it have lived very turbulent lives. The people who are inspirational say, ‘I could die from this disease, but instead I’m going to live my life better.’”
When Abrams met Latif, she decided that was exactly what she’d do.
“Imani saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself,” said Abrams, who is now 39 and until recently has not had to take medication for HIV. “Without her, I’d be back in jail, or I’d be dead.”
Much like It Takes a Village, the group Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, also provides services and outreach to the black community.
“We work a lot with the Center, and share many of the same resources,” Latif said. “They do a lot of outreach, and work toward educating the black community.”
And that specific focus on the black community is what puts people like Abrams at ease.
“When I was released from prison in 2004, a friend took me to the Colorado AIDS Project, and that’s where I heard about It Takes a Village,” Abrams said. “It’s not that other groups aren’t great, I just identify much more with my own people.
“If my story helps people avoid this disease, I’m happy to speak out to anyone. There should be no more cases. We need to wipe out this problem in the black community. We have to educate people.”