Opinion: Why the U.S. AIDS Epidemic Is a Fight for All Americans

National Journal | March 7, 2013

Martha Cameron, an EGPAF Foundation Ambassador, opens up about the dangers of viewing the HIV/AIDS epidemic as merely an "African problem" and the challenges of tackling the disease in minority communities in the United States.

I grew up in Zambia–a country deeply damaged by the AIDS epidemic. The same month that I completed my B.A. in 1998, my mother died, leaving me as the oldest child to fend for my siblings.

My mother died of AIDS-related complications. And I have lost half of my extended family to cholera, malaria, AIDS, or a combination of the three. My story isn’t abnormal. This is an unfortunate reality for many Zambians.

I myself have been living with HIV for 10 years. Despite my positive status, I am married and have had two children. Thanks to careful planning and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV services, my husband and children are all HIV-negative.

I moved to the United States in 2009. I knew living here would be different than being home in Zambia, but I didn’t expect to again find myself in a community where the effects of AIDS were so visible.

You may not see them, but as an HIV-positive black woman, I do.

I work as a community health worker and am supporting and representing those affected by AIDS in the D.C. metropolitan area. Last April, I was also appointed to the regional Ryan White Planning Council, which provides much-needed support for people living with HIV. Giving back to a system that means so much to me personally is important. I’ve also found my experience incredibly eye-opening.

The black community represents only 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population, but African-Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010, with an incidence almost eight times higher than that of white Americans. African-American men made up one-third of all new HIV infections, accounting for 70 percent of the incidence for that race. More troubling is new data showing that in the District of Columbia alone, 90 percent of those living with HIV are black women, and up to 30 percent of people living with HIV in the nation’s capital don’t know their status.

These statistics are not just troubling. They are terrifying. As a community health worker, I know that minority populations are the hardest to reach, and they often have trouble navigating the HIV/AIDS service system. Many have never had a “medical home” and have limited experience with the health care system. I see it every day in my work as a peer mentor, professional, and community member. I also saw it as I navigated myself through the health care system when I first moved here.

HIV can be so isolating, no matter where you live, but in Zambia, when someone gets sick, they are cared for by the community. In the United States, we’ve forgotten our obligations to our families and to our communities.

I miss that sense of responsibility. I miss that support. Let’s commit to looking after our neighbors in America like we do in Zambia. By helping each other, we are helping ourselves, and making progress toward a future where HIV is no longer a reality. Not for the black community. Not for anyone.

Martha Cameron is a foundation ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She and her husband live in the District of Columbia metropolitan region with their children.