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Why Preventing HIV Starts With Knowledge

There’s a guy sitting in a black Ford pickup staring at Josh Polk who stands beside a pop-up HIV testing van, part of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) effort to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. BAI is back on the street and deep in South Central Los Angeles, California serving the community, trying to spread the word and to get five to 10 people to step up and learn their status.

The first step to dealing with the issue of HIV is to get people to engage. But the guy in the Ford doesn't seem sure he wants to do that — though he’s curious, he's also skeptical.

So Josh makes his way over to the pickup and spends 10 minutes having a conversation.

The guy wants to know what’s going on. He wants to know why HIV testing is happening here — why not in West Hollywood where all the gays are.

Josh returns a little frustrated. He is used to ignorance and prejudice, but he won’t accept it.

Misinformation and stigma are speed bumps on the path to successfully dealing with and preventing HIV, that Josh and his co-workers at BAI often face. Their mission at BAI is to end the AIDS epidemic and eventually reverse the growing rate of HIV transmission within the black community. Black Americans are contracting HIV at a rate four times the rate Caucasians contract the disease.

But it’s not an issue of risky behavior. It’s an issue of education, prevention and access to services.

“Our people, our problem, our solution” is the theme of BAI, and they live that mission every day. “We need to be a part of the community to help the community,” Josh says. “Our population has become cynical and the way to turn that around is to consistently be here advocating, educating, testing, serving, caring.”

Josh is HIV-positive himself. As a black gay man, he knows the wall that an HIV-positive status can build around you, but he has been determined to build windows and a door to let some light in.

Light, in the form of accurate information, is a precious commodity in this world.

A research study examining the level of HIV, treatment, and prevention knowledge of those engaging with the community — sponsored by Johnson & Johnson in partnership with BAI — found that those who support people at risk of or infected by HIV were not well-versed in HIV science, or even basic knowledge of the virus.

Misinformation is a significant and pervasive problem in the fight to end the AIDS epidemic.

The issue is further complicated by stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, which keeps people getting tested and treatment. Instead, the stigma allows people to deny their responsibility to partners and even themselves when it comes to confronting HIV.

Having done the research to identify this key problem, Johnson & Johnson continues to support the BAI as it develops strategies to help educate those reaching out to the black community.

It’s a small step forward, but an important one.

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