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Looking at grip of AIDS

(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2012
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WHO

Renata Simone

WHAT

Simone, of Marblehead, is the producer, writer, and director of “Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” a two-hour “Frontline” documentary that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WGBH-TV Channel 2.

Q. Why did you choose to focus the film on AIDS among African-Americans?

A. In 1995, the number of new cases in black Americans overtook the number of new cases in white Americans and other ethnicities. It’s been that way since.

Q. The United Nations recently found that new cases of AIDS are falling around the world.

A. And in the US, it’s stayed the same. We’ve had about 50,000 new cases a year since the 1990s. If black America was a country unto itself, it would have the 16th worst epidemic in the world. What’s going on? It makes you wonder.

Q. What is going on? Why have black Americans been harder hit with AIDS than whites?

A. There’s a great stigma against HIV, where people don't want to talk about HIV. That’s not particular to black Americans, but it’s kind of a baseline. The way stigma leads to ignorance by fostering a lack of education, a lack of talking — that leaves people more susceptible. There’s also a culture of secrecy [among black Americans]. A few people in the film trace the secrecy back to slavery and to a time when people didn’t talk about personal things because it put them at risk. That became engrained in the culture.

Q. You also make the point in the film that the church, which took such a leadership role in the civil rights movement, has not been a leader in the fight against AIDS.

A. You have a very conservative religious environment. There are parishes and individual pastors who are very open and very welcoming of people regardless of what misfortunes and things there are in their lives, but historically, HIV [the virus that causes AIDS] became engrained in the community during the ’80s when some activists were really trying to get the church to come on board.

Q. Are there other cultural factors, such as condom use, that have caused this disproportionate hit among African-Americans?

A. Research shows the incidence of condom use is higher in black America. The problem is the virus is in the community, and any activity is going to have a higher risk of transmission because there’s more virus in the community. The worst thing that happened was during the ’80s when the virus spread unchecked and unnoticed. That was the time the virus got a real foothold in the community.

Q. You are clearly passionate about the particular problems that black women face.

A. For women, there’s this problem that emerges with the lack of men. Women find themselves in relatively powerless positions in relationships and they’re unable to negotiate safe sex. If a woman says I don’t want to have sex without a condom, he says there’s always your friend over here and she’ll do whatever I want. So, a woman has to take some risks to keep this man, and that leaves women open to not only HIV, but all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases.

Q. You talk about being in the “end game” of AIDS in America. What do you mean by that?

A. We’re in the end game because all the tools are in place to keep this virus from being passed. We know how to end the epidemic. There are good drugs if people can get access to the medicine and they take it and the people around them are supportive. We have to use the things that are available to stop it.

Karen Weintraub

This interview has been

edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com

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