'Silence can kill': Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS in the black community

February 14, 2013

Wearing red ribbons in honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday to adopt a proclamation commemorating the day locally.

The proclamation, sponsored by Commissioner Loretta Smith, notes that African-Americans comprised 14 percent of the U.S. population yet accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections -- and that blacks and African-Americans in Oregon are more than three times more likely than whites to acquire HIV infection.

“I’m still shocked when I read that African-Americans in Oregon are three times more likely than white Oregonians to be infected with HIV,” Smith said at the board’s Feb. 14 hearing.

Before adopting the proclamation, the board heard from Mariotta Gary-Smith, health educator of the Multnomah County Health Department; Larry Hill, of the Oregon Health Authority’s HIV prevention program; and Pastor Arthur Carter, of Bethel AME Church.

Each spoke passionately about HIV’s impact on the African-American community.

Hill told the board that he has learned over 21 years of working to combat HIV that African-Americans for too long denied the reality of HIV.

“To use an old adage, silence can kill,” Hill said. “And as a result, thousands of blacks continued to hide behaviors that often put them at risk of contracting HIV. And the disease spread from persons living with HIV, who did not know their HIV status, to unsuspecting male and female sex and drug-sharing partners.”

Hill credited the first wave of HIV educators with creating a message at the onset of the health crisis decades ago that should still resonate in 2013 and for years to come when it comes to prevention, education and awareness.

“Their message from 30-plus years ago take an HIV test, protect yourself and loved ones by using a condom and not sharing syringes,” Hill said. “And get the facts about HIV and AIDS.”

Commissioners praised the trio of speakers for being forthright and on the forefront of a health and equity battle with a disease that still carries a stigma for too many.

“It’s Valentine’s Day,’’ Commissioner Judy Shiprack said. “It’s a day when we celebrate love and I think that your message is so appropriate that people need to have love without fear.”