In Profile: Phill Wilson

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May 11 2006 11:00 PM ET

Don't tell Phill Wilson that African-Americans are the 'new' face of the pandemic. The founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute says African-Americans, black women in particular, have been hit disproportionately hard from the very beginning of the AIDS crisis.

'We found out as early as 1984 that African-Americans accounted for 25% of AIDS cases and that black women, for example, at that time represented over 50% of the AIDS patients among women,' Wilson says. 'While clearly the disproportionate nature has grown, from the very beginning the face of AIDS has been a multicultural face.'

Wilson'who turns 50 this year and marks the bittersweet point of spending half of his life with HIV, just as the nation marks the 25th year since the first AIDS cases were diagnosed'worked in the HIV arena from the 1980s until health problems forced him to quit in 1996. But successful triple-drug therapy had the crusader feeling robust enough by 1999 to rejoin the fight.

'When I looked to see where the greatest need was, it was clear that the place I could best serve was focusing on AIDS's impact on African-Americans,' he says. He responded by founding the Black AIDS Institute, which he describes as the 'only AIDS think tank in the country focusing on black people.'

'Our mission,' he says, 'is to stop the epidemic in black communities by engaging and mobilizing traditional black institutions, leaders, and individuals. We do this in three ways: through capacity building, training, and technical assistance; information dissemination; and advocacy from an unapologetically black point of view.'

The institute also continues to battle beliefs that HIV is a 'white gay disease,' an assumption that makes it too easy to ignore its rapid spread among African-Americans.

'If we are to stop the AIDS epidemic, we have to raise the HIV-science literacy in black America,' he insists. 'When people understand the science, they are better able to protect themselves, better able to adhere to medicines if they are HIV-positive, better able to advocate for access to treatment and care, and in a better position to influence public policy around HIV. I think it's getting better, but we still have a long way to go.'

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