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Friday, February 26, 1999 Published at 14:20 GMT

Aids threat to US blacks

Magic Johnson, US basketball legend, is HIV positive

Aids is the biggest threat to the health of young and middle-aged black Americans.

But they are more likely to be diagnosed later than whites, receive worse care and die earlier.

For the first time over 1,000 health workers and activists are meeting to discuss the problem of Aids in the black community.

Statistics show that, although black people make up 12% of the US population, they account for 45% of new HIV infections.

One in 50 black men and one in 160 black women are HIV positive.

For people aged 25 to 44, it has been the top killer throughout the 1990s, although the death toll is tailing off due to the introduction of combination drug therapy.

In the 1980s, Aids was mainly associated with gay white males.

Most of the black people with HIV contracted the infection through IV drugs and heterosexual sex.

Historic event

Dr Stephen Thomas of Emory University said the conference in Washington faced "no less a daunting challenge than we faced in the civil rights movement".

Phill Wilson of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum said the event was "historic".

The main thrust of the conference is the search for practical ways of halting the spread of HIV and caring for those affected.

Many of the issues involved were related to poverty. For example, the difficulty of testing homeless people or drug users for HIV.

Other subjects being covered include HIV prevention in prison and the problem of ensuring people continue to take drug therapies which stop the progress of the disease.

The US government is this year spending $156m on minority groups affected by Aids.

President Clinton, who says the situation is at crisis point, is seeking approval for a $171m budget for next year.

But he refused to allow money to be used for needle exchange schemes, which have been shown to reduce the risk of contracting Aids through sharing needles.

Practical support

Doctors at the conference said the money should be raised on a local basis if the government was not prepared to support it.

There was also criticism that the government had only called for a third of research sites to be in minority communities, when people from minorities accounted for two-thirds of new infections.

Practical suggestions included proposals for support services to be more accessible to black patients, for example, by opening at weekends.

Dr Joel Gallant of Johns Hopkins University said more research needed to be done into finding the appropriate drug treatment for individual sufferers.

But others said this would be costly and blood tests on drug effectiveness were not subsidised by the government.

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National Association of Black Aids Ministries

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