News that for the first time an HIV vaccine has had some success in protecting people from the disease is severely tempered by news out of St. Louis County that a 40-year-old African American male is being held on $200,000 cash bond on six counts of recklessly risking infection of another with HIV. The news of the vaccine shows how far we've come in the battle against HIV, but the arrest of this St. Louis County man shows how much further we have to go in educating the public.
Prosecutors say that Orlando A. Hadley had numerous sexual encounters with a woman and did not reveal his HIV status to her. The woman later tested positive for HIV. Now, police are polling the public to see who else may have had sexual contact with Hadley.
Let's be clear, not being honest with your sexual partner about your HIV status is terrible. Individuals, though, must learn to take steps to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, regardless of what our partner tells you. The advance in HIV/AIDS medications has turned the disease into more of a chronic condition for some, but just because living with HIV/AIDS is easier doesn't mean we should let down our guards.
"Quite frankly, this kind of prosecution misses the boat and does harm. Outside of rape, it takes two people to transmit the disease," Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, told Black Voices in an interview. "This says to folks, 'I don't have to protect myself.' What would be healthier is to change the conversation to address how it is each of our responsibilities to protect ourselves."
It's a conversation that needs to happen now because HIV and AIDS is ravaging the African American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans account for 51 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. African Americans also account for 48 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. At the end of 2007, 40 percent of the people with AIDS who died were African American.
These horrible statistics point to the fact that we are not doing enough to protect ourselves. Reducing the number of partners we have and always using condoms are good places to start. We need to address the terrible problem of intravenous drug use in our communities and also the stigma against homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. According to the CDC, in a recent study of men who have sex with men in five cities, 46 percent were HIV positive and 67 percent were unaware of their infection.
Because of the way people with this disease are treated, some may choose not to know their status despite the consequences.
"There are people that are HIV positive and don't want to believe it and ignore it. There are people that know or suspect their partner is involved in high-risk behavior and don't protect themselves," Wilson said.
This is more of a moral issue than a legal issue, except in rare cases when an individual seems to be repeatedly and purposely infecting others. Putting this one man behind bars will not go as far as continued and strengthened outreach to those who are most at risk.