Nearly three decades after HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was discovered, health and medical researchers know at least half of all new infections are in people under age 25. Still, the nation’s estimated 17 million college students have not been considered by health care providers to be a high-risk group for contracting HIV/AIDS, says Craig Roberts, an epidemiologist who chairs the American College Health Association’s Sexual Health Education and Clinical Care Coalition.
But not all HIV/AIDS risk is equal, points out Dr. Peter Leone who five years ago uncovered an outbreak of HIV among 84 young men on nearly 40 North Carolina university campuses. That disturbing upsurge of HIV infections was driven by college-aged Black men aged 17-27 who have sex with men , said Leone, the incoming chairman of the National Coalition of STD Directors and an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine. The rate of infection among that population signaled “a public health emergency” for Leone and others on the frontline of the epidemic that isn’t showing signs of abating.
Health disparities and other socioeconomic factors already impacting Blacks compound their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, say researchers. That is why some leading Black AIDS organizations are responding to the epidemic’s disproportionate impact by mobilizing networks of Black college students who can both reach their peers with education and prevention messages and empower those in the Black community who struggle to respond to the enormity of the disease.
The disparate impact on African-Americans and other minorities who represent 67 percent of new HIV infections should also spur Black college leadership and HBCUs to “step up,” Leone maintains. Some, although not as many as he would like, are doing just that.
In separate events this September, the National Minority AIDS Council and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS launched partnerships with Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.; Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va.; Howard University in Washington, D.C.; and Bowie State University in Maryland, to support campus-based HBCU HIV/AIDS Peer Education Initiatives.
“We need our students to strengthen HIV prevention and education efforts in the communities that they touch and demand that their peers know their HIV status … and their communities contribute to reducing the incidence of this preventable disease,” explains Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College.
Most students know how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, but still they misunderstand their own risk and engage in high-risk behavior, says Dr. Karen Butler, a professor of health education and an instructor for the mandatory HIV 101 course offered to incoming freshmen at the historically Black Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. Butler says the university, which has had an AIDS policy in place since 1997, is considering creating an HIV 102 course that includes more basic biology and emphasizes behavioral risks.
But on many HBCU campuses HIV/AIDS still remains “the elephant in the room that people are trying to cover up with a towel,” Dr. Goulda Downer told a small, attentive audience during a session titled “HBCU Capacity and Health Care Reform” at the 2009 White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference.
Downer is the principal investigator for the National Minority AIDS Education and Training Center headquartered at the Howard University College of Medicine.
When the center sought to survey the nation’s 105 HBCUs about such things as the severity of the disease on their campuses and their training and resource needs, Downer, an assistant professor at the College of Medicine, said it took her at least two years to receive 31 responses. She concluded from the survey that “many HBCUs refuse to address HIV on their campuses.”
A third of the HBCUs surveyed responded to queries about the state of HIV awareness, prevention and training activities on their respective campuses. These respondents were members of the faculty of health sciences and student administration departments. Over 84 percent stated that HIV is a problem on HBCU campuses with 75 percent indicating that HIV is a problem on their own campuses. Many campuses, Downer said, indicated that they needed technical assistance and training tailored to young adults.
But, according to Downer, the most significant finding of the survey points to the need for greater campus leadership and intervention: “More than 44 percent of the sample indicated that for programs to be impactful, HIV training and technical assistance should be developed with input from the presidents of the institutions.”
The center this year plans to conduct a similar HIV?AIDS assessment survey at Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities. Starting in February with Black History Month, she said the center will also launch a poster campaign at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions that they hope will encourage HIV testing and discourage the stigma associated with AIDS.