Thursday, August 17, 2006 (Reuters Health)—HIV infections are rising in black men and women living in developed nations that have otherwise made strides against the disease, said participants at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

“AIDS in America is a black disease no matter how you look at it, by gender or sexual orientation or age or socioeconomic class or region in the country in which you live,” said Phil Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, at a press conference on Monday.

“Black people bear the brunt of this epidemic.”

People of African and Caribbean descent -- particularly heterosexual women and men who have sex with men -- have higher HIV infection rates than the overall population in developed countries like Canada and the United States, said conference participants.

Blacks make up 13 percent of the United States population, but represent an estimated 42 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. Ontarians of African and Caribbean descent make up less than five percent of the population but account for 14 percent of those with HIV/AIDS and 19.5 percent of new infections in 2004 in Ontario, a rise of 82 percent in five years. Their HIV infection rate is almost 13 times the overall rate.

AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25 to 34, and in 2003, 60 percent of all American females living with HIV/AIDS were black. African American women make up 68 percent of new HIV cases in the U.S.

“If we, as black women, in America do not decide today and every day that AIDS is our face and fight, in 2020 there’ll be no black women in America,” said Grazell Howard, first vice president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

A study released by the Centers for Disease Control in June 2005 showed that black men who have sex with men in the United States had HIV infection rates higher than in sub-Saharan Africa, at 46 percent.

Another CDC study presented at the conference showed that while American high school students were overall engaging in less sexual behavior that put them at risk for HIV infection since the early 1990s, decreases in sexual intercourse and increases in condom use in African American teenagers leveled off over the past few years, after progress throughout the early 1990s.

The study’s findings showed that there may be a need to intensify prevention efforts in black and Hispanic adolescent populations in the United States, said Dr. Laura Kann of the CDC.

It’s not only in the developing world that people die due to lack of access to treatment, said the Canadian Treatment Action Council. In the conference’s host country, a variety of barriers stand in the way of treatment for HIV-positive immigrants, said Esther Tharao of the council.

Stigma -- both in the general population and their own cultural communities -- makes it hard for vulnerable populations to get care. Immigrants and refugees without residency status in Canada don’t qualify for the country’s public health care, and they face further difficulties due to differences in culture and language.

“We need a Canadian strategy to support communities from countries where HIV is endemic, and we need funding to make it work,” said Tharao in a statement.

Several conference activities focused on mobilizing populations of African and Caribbean descent in the fight against HIV.

“For too long, our community has sat idly by as this epidemic has ravaged our families and claimed the lives of our brothers and sisters,” said Cheryl Cooper, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women.

“We need to make some noise. Everyday, everywhere we need to start by saying, I am fighting against HIV. If we take to the streets and the churches and we use all these platforms, we can beat this,” said Maxine Waters, a Representative from California.