Members of Houston’s African-American community met on National HIV Testing Day yesterday to learn about the disproportionately high incidence of HIV among African-Americans and what they can do to empower themselves and others in response to this health crisis.

TV sports broadcaster and former NFL player Spencer Tillman, who lost his brother to AIDS, joined local HIV experts to advise the audience to get tested, learn about the disease, share their knowledge and be aware of community resources.

During a seminar with 200 attendees at the Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Spencer Tillman and Joseph Gathe, M.D., Chief of Infectious Diseases at Park Plaza Hospital and clinical instructor for the Department of Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, encouraged audience members to spread the word that getting tested for HIV is an important first step in slowing the spread of the disease.

The panel reminded the audience that HIV/AIDS is a major public health concern in Houston’s African-American community. African-Americans make up 22 percent of the Houston population, 2 yet from 1999 through March 2005, they accounted for 55 percent of all reported HIV cases in the area. 3 Transmission of HIV can occur through unprotected sex, shared needles and/or direct exposure to someone else’s blood.

Spencer Tillman personalized the message. “My brother died of AIDS complications in 1992 when knowledge about and treatment for the disease were limited,” said Tillman. “But now, we know so much more about the disease and there are more medication options available to treat HIV. So if you do find out you’re HIV-positive, you should know that it is not a death sentence. In fact, you can continue to work, have meaningful relationships, and raise a healthy family. Living successfully with HIV is something that’s doable – and it’s worth doing!”

Joseph Gathe, M.D., further explained the importance of getting tested for HIV and that with the range of treatments available today, HIV therapy can better respond to individual patient needs. “If you test HIV-positive, learn all you can about HIV so you can best manage and live well with the disease. Make sure you tell your healthcare provider about your lifestyle, your emotional well-being and your family health history, including cardiovascular disease, to ensure the best treatment choices,” he said. “Early detection and monitoring of HIV can increase one’s ability to combat the disease.”

The seminar also included the screening of “Living Life to the Fullest” – an educational video on HIV/AIDS supported by Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in partnership with the American College of Physicians – which features Spencer Tillman and actress and model Veronica Webb. Tillman and Webb, who both have suffered the loss of loved ones to HIV/AIDS, are encouraging others to seek help to fight the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Living Life to the Fullest” education brochures and community events are also supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.

The CDC estimates that more than 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS, but approximately 25 percent of these individuals are undiagnosed and unaware of their HIV status. 4 Without treatment, someone who is HIV-positive may lose the ability to fight infections.