HIV and AIDS remain scourges in the African-American community, where experts say infection rates are higher than in any other demographic group — and rising fast.
On Thursday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kicked off a campaign to enlist local pastors and ministers in spreading the word that the HIV-AIDs crisis in their communities is more severe than many realize, and that plenty can be done to help.
"This elephant [in the room] is growing larger and larger in our congregations," said Jennifer White, a health-programs specialist with the NAACP who gave a presentation to black faith leaders at a Forest Park senior center Thursday.
Yesterday's conference, attended by about two dozen faith leaders, was sponsored by the NAACP's national headquarters and its Baltimore branch.
The Washington, D.C., branch held a similar gathering at the same time, helping to inaugurate the initiative, dubbed "The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative."
White shared alarming figures. Although African-Americans make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population, for example, 40 percent of newly diagnosed cases occur in the black community, according to NAACP research.
The reasons for this are complex, she said. Though blacks tend to engage in safe-sex practices more frequently than other groups, they also have higher rates of poverty and incarceration and less access to quality health care. In addition, some pastors have traditionally taken harsh views toward same-sex relationships, leaving many infected people unwilling to step forward for testing or treatment.
White also cited a number of myths surrounding HIV and AIDS, including the notion that the disease only strikes gays or younger people. In Baltimore, some figures suggest that as many as 23 percent of new cases involve men and women older than age 50.
White asked her audience to consider HIV outreach as part of their spiritual mission.
"It's our charge to save lives and souls," she said.
Anna Fowlkes, a longtime advocate for HIV patients, said as many as 7,000 people in Baltimore are infected and don't realize it, a situation that can only lead to a worsening of the problem.
"We need more outreach programs like this," she said.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said the organization would hold a repeat of the meeting in two weeks.