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Keeping up the battle against HIV, AIDS

The Baltimore Sun

"Ladies," said Cookie Johnson, looking straight into the camera, her husband's arm draped across her shoulders. "Have you been tested ... "

" ... for HIV?" finished Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

As the most prominent African-American face of HIV, Johnson, who is now a businessman and philanthropist, has long used his fame to raise public awareness of the virus that causes AIDS.

But the appearance of his usually camera-shy wife in the public-service announcements that began airing in July on cable TV and YouTube is a sign of a growing outspokenness among African-Americans about the community's disproportionately high HIV rates.

"We've got to get the word out about HIV and AIDS to minority communities," Johnson said during taping at the Beverly Hilton earlier this year. "Cookie's taken on the battle."

Local activists have worked for decades to draw attention to the toll of HIV in the black community. Now they are being joined by a growing number of black celebrities and leaders nationwide.

In 2006, the heads of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's largest civil rights group, took HIV tests in public and made testing available at their annual convention. That same year, 16 mainstream black organizations, including 100 Black Men of America, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the National Council of Negro Women, pledged to fight the epidemic.

"The black community is where the gay white community probably was in the late 1980s or early 1990s," said Dr. Wilbert C. Jordan, medical director of the OASIS Clinic at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles. "But we're not where we need to be still."

The numbers provide ample reason for alarm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks make up almost half of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, though they are just 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Nearly 17 years after Johnson, with his wife at his side, announced to a stunned sports world that he was HIV-positive, blacks account for most of the country's new HIV and AIDS cases and of deaths from AIDS-related causes.

Among the reasons cited by public health experts is poverty, which can lead both to trouble finding health care and to high depression rates. Depression can sap the will to be careful.

The "I Stand With Magic" campaign, a $60 million project financed by the drug firm Abbott, which makes HIV and AIDS drugs, urges blacks to be tested for HIV. Its goal is to halve the rate of new infections among U.S. blacks.

The CDC estimates that as many as a quarter of those with HIV in the United States do not know they are infected and inadvertently spread the virus.

"I've been living 16 years with [HIV] now," Magic Johnson said. "There are 27 drugs now. There was only one when I was diagnosed. You can live for a long time with early detection and getting care from a doctor."

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