N.C. Students, Faculty Address HIV OutbreakBy Eleanor Lee Yates
More than 450 students and faculty from North Carolina’s 12 historically Black colleges and universities recently gathered to discuss the alarming increase of HIV rates among Black students. “Stomp Out HIV/STDs,” held on the weekend of March 20, was sponsored by North Carolina Central University and the N.C. Division of Public Health.
“Students were very open about talking and asking questions,” said Tai Bryant, a second-year health education major at NCCU and a student coordinator of the event. “This is a wake-up call. We need to be more aggressive with our message to prevent HIV.”
In the first documented outbreak of HIV on U.S. campuses, N.C. Division of Public Health researchers found that college students accounted for more than 1 in 5 of the new HIV infections among 18- to 30-year-olds.
Also, researchers found that of 84 newly infected male college students, 73 were Black. This represented 20 percent of the state’s new HIV infections among 18- to 30-year-olds in the past three years. The cases were linked to 37 North Carolina colleges with ties to out-of-state colleges and universities.
The recent outbreak is the first documented case of HIV on U.S. college campuses. It was identified in late 2002 and is believed to have begun in mid-2001. North Carolina discovered the cases through a new way of testing for HIV that other states are not using yet, said Phyllis Gray, manager of the N.C. Division of Public Health’s Minority AIDS Initiative.
“Part of the (HIV) problem with students is developmental,” she said. “They’re experimenting with alcohol and sex. They may be questioning their sexuality and want to try something they are thinking about. But they’re taking risks with diseases for which there are no cures. They are young and think they are invincible and that it’s not going to happen to them.”
Gray said the findings necessitate an aggressive focus on HIV education among college students. According to Gray, Blacks make up about 21 percent of the state’s population but account for almost 70 percent of all those infected with HIV. The high rate of HIV among Blacks lies in part because of the smaller percentage in the country, Gray said.
“It doesn’t take a lot to create havoc and in time the problem is disproportionate,” she said.
North Carolina researchers say that among all the newly infected men, the leading cause was having sex with other men. They found that 67 of the 84 men had sex with other men, and 27 of those 67 also had sex with women.
Dr. David Jolly, assistant professor of health education at NCCU, said all students — gay or straight — know how HIV is transmitted.
“They have the knowledge but there is a disconnect in what they know and what they do,” he said. “They can convince themselves that nothing will happen. They think that HIV is not a disease that pertains to them. It happens to older White guys or drug users or down-and-out crack heads, some group they’re not part of.”
Jolly said a crucial effort should be made to reach out to young African American men who are having sex with other men.
“We need to make campuses more supportive environments for gay and lesbian students. They need to feel more comfortable being who they are,” he said. “If these guys feel threatened and harassed, they are going to lead secret lives and it will be harder to educate and protect them.” The majority of college males who are infected with HIV and had sex with men did not consider themselves gay or bisexual.
Those attending the “Stomp Out HIV/STDs” event networked and exchanged ideas.
“We learned from each other and talked about the challenges at each others’ schools,” Bryant said.
In addition to forums, there were “For Men Only” and “For Women Only” sessions, allowing a comfort zone for discussions and questions, and a “Safe Sex Party” featuring Jeopardy-style games on the topic and relays in which participants raced to correctly place a condom on a mannequin.
Also attending the conference were activist Hydeia Broadbent, 20, who was born with HIV; Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas of the hip-hop group TLC; Brandon Braud of the Human Rights Fund; Dr. Beny Primm, a member of the president’s advisory council on HIV; and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC officials are currently planning more HIV surveys in the state and designing an intervention program for young Black men who have sex with other men.
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