By Danielle Douglass
The Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are areas rich in culture, community pride and history, but poor in health. This section of central Brooklyn is home to one of the largest Black populations in New York, but recently it has also become home to the largest population of HIV and AIDS cases in all of Brooklyn.
“Central Brooklyn, specifically Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, is considered to be the epicenter for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Brooklyn,” said Dr. Marilyn Martin-Naar, director of the AIDS Center at Interfaith Medical Center. According to the NYC HIV/AIDS Surveillance Statistics, released in 2004, Bed-Stuy/ Crown Heights, as they are grouped together, had 351 newly diagnosed HIV cases and 353 newly diagnosed AIDS cases in 2002. Whereas the average number of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses throughout Brooklyn was 114 cases, respectively.
As frightening as these statistics are, they pale in comparison to the alarming demographic trend of the newly diagnosed; Dr. Monica Sweeney, medical director of The Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center, says many of the newly diagnosed HIV patients at her clinic are between the ages of 13 and 19-years-old. The other half of Dr. Sweeney’s patients are over 50, but the common thread between all of these patients is that they are mainly Black women. Dr. Martin-Naar has also seen an increase in the number of infected women and older patients at Interfaith.
Both doctors attribute much of the rise in HIV/AIDS cases to a culture of denial operating on multiple levels. Primarily, many people still refuse to believe that they can contract the virus, trusting the superficial appearance of their partners over their better judgment or investing too much faith in their immortality. Dr. Sweeney adds, “There are people who actually distrust the statistics and don’t believe things are as bad as people are saying.”
Dr. Sweeney, who recently wrote Condom Sense: A Guide to Sexual Survival in the New Millennium, goes on to say that many parents are still in denial about their children’s sexual activity. “We have to be more honest about what is actually happening and stop thinking that giving people information makes them act irresponsibly,” says Dr. Sweeney.
At a time when many young people have redefined what constitutes sex and are increasingly contracting the virus, sex education, especially at home, is vital. Granted, the New York City Department of Education is presently revising and expanding their curriculum on HIV/ AIDS for students in grades K-12, the message of prevention needs to be echoed by more parents and the general community.
Yet, sex education is only one aspect of prevention, Dr. Sweeney acknowledges that self-esteem or the lack thereof, plays an important role in the increase of HIV diagnoses. She sees many cases of young girls having sex with older men for material things, a situation the doctor believes wouldn’t occur if these girls were “raised in an environment that could nurture their self-esteem.” Dr. Sweeney believes that as a community we need to enforce existing laws on statutory rape, instead of turning a blind eye to this common problem. “Fourteen-year-old girls don’t have the ability to negotiate safe sex in that environment,” says Dr. Sweeney.
Teenagers are not the only at-risk group, besides Black women ages 25-32, newly infected older populations, those 50 and over, are becoming prevalent in Bed-Stuy/ Crown Heights. Dr. Martin-Naar says approximately 50% of her caseload at Interfaith is over 50, which complicates treatment since many of her patients already have diabetes, hypertension and osteoarthritis conditions that can be affected by antiviral drugs. In response, Interfaith, located on Atlantic Avenue, now has an Infectious Disease Clinic in addition to the AIDS Center. The Infectious Disease Clinic is run by specialists who provide additional care for patients confronting the complications of the disease.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Center, located on Fulton St./Harriet Tubman Ave., also provides a variety of treatment and prevention programs. Besides offering rapid 20-to-40 minute testing and HIV primary-care treatment, the center also focuses on community outreach, going into housing projects and street corners to convey the importance of safe sex and getting tested.
Dr. Sweeney is also a firm believer in contact tracing and partner notification, specifically targeting HIV-infected ex-convicts, who are reentering the community. She says it is important for this infected population to receive immediate care upon their release since being on anti-viral medication decreases the risk of transmitting the disease.
Dr. Sweeney and Dr. Martin-Naar, both stressed the importance of the church getting involved in preventative methods. “[This is] a very religious community and you have to provide culturally appropriate services,” says Dr. Martin-Naar. Dr. Sweeney mentioned one such progressive church program that recently took place at St. Paul Community Baptist Church. Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood invited Dr. Sweeney to discuss HIV and AIDS in a church program, Straight Talk for Straight Understanding, allowing her to advocate safe sex from the pulpit.
Both Dr. Sweeney and Dr. Martin-Naar acknowledge that there is not enough state and federal funding going towards preventative methods; the money available is typically focused on treatment and not prevention.
However, as a community we can still work together to create more open and honest discourse about this epidemic, whether it be in church, in school, at the beauty salons or at home. We have to take away the stigma attached to the disease so that those who already have it feel comfortable seeking treatment and begin being honest with themselves and their partners.