“Let’s call a thing a thing.” That was the simple, but poignant, message of Dr. Carline Jean-Gilles, a specialist in treating AIDS, at a daylong conference on HIV/AIDS hosted by the Department Health on Tuesday.
“We can’t act as if we don’t know,” she said. “It is what it is. It’s happening.”
Jean-Gilles stressed the importance of confronting the realities of the epidemic if its spread through the African American population was ever to be stopped.
She told the crowd that African Americans account for approximately 50 percent of all cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States and lead the country in the number of new diagnoses.
Jean-Gilles added that the cause of this trend isn’t complicated.
“The reality is we’re not talking about HIV as frank and as honest as we need to in our community,” she said. “That’s the bottom line – nothing more, nothing less.”
Jean-Gilles forced the crowd to think about two major social issues that most would like to sweep under the carpet: male promiscuity and men having sex with men.
She said that it’s become too acceptable in the African American community for men to cheat on their wives, whether it is with other women or with men “on the down low.”
Jean-Gilles said she understood the inclination to turn a blind eye when your husband doesn’t come home. “After the anger comes the pain, and we quickly want to heal the pain, so we forgive,” she said, but then added that accepting this behavior only puts you at risk.
She pointed out that at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the disease spread through the African American community fairly slowly. She recalled actually being excited in college in the 90s when her teacher discussed AIDS infection rates because it was the only disease they had studied that was spreading through the white population faster than the black.
This trend reversed, however, in the following years. Infection rates amongst whites have steadily declined while African American rates have only increased.
“White gay men saw that this disease was having a major impact in their communities,” she said. “They saw how their friends, their loved ones, their partners were dying like flies around them, and they immediately implemented serious prevention in that community and they did not hold back. Hence, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in HIV in that community.”
Jean-Gilles said that similar action must be taken in the African American community. In order to achieve that, she said, the community must drop the stigma associated with the disease and deal honestly with the causes of its spread.
This is especially true of medical providers, she said, so people with the disease will be more likely to seek treatment.
The conference Tuesday was held simultaneously at both the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands using teleconferencing technology.
Jean-Gilles gave a similar speech at a previous AIDS conference held on St. Croix in March of this year. The Department of Health’s Dianne Malone said that they wanted people on St. Thomas to have an opportunity to hear her message, so they scheduled a second conference.
Malone said that AIDS was a serious enough problem in the territory to warrant two conferences in the same year. She said that the per capita infection rate in the Virgin Islands is very high, ranking the territory second or third amongst all states and territories depending on the study.
She said that the territory’s low population was part of the reason why the per capita rate was so high, but that should not be a comfort.
“The incidences of it in this small territory is still large,” Malone said. “Being aware and being knowledgeable is the only way individuals will change their lifestyles or even just get tested.”
The last count of HIV cases in the Virgin Islands was done in 2011. In that study, 579 people were found to be living with the disease within the territory.
Later in the day, Jason Henry of Frederiksted Health Care Inc. spoke on making HIV testing a part of routine health care, and St. Thomas resident River Huston spoke on how to live a positive life after being diagnosed with HIV.
The conference concludes a week of events planned by the Department of Health in honor of World AIDS day.