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On World AIDS Day, harsh realities meet reason to hope

Kathryn Hall

For over 20 years, HIV/AIDS has ravaged this country and the world, leaving an unprecedented trail of sickness and death in its wake. World AIDS Day was marked across Massachusetts on Saturday with ceremonies and events that remembered the dead and honored those struggling to survive and stop the spread of the epidemic.

At one such event hosted by the Dorchester-based nonprofit advocacy group Healing Our Land Inc. (HOLI), state Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby warned attendees that despite Massachusetts’ advances in health care reform and reports that the rate of HIV infections is no longer on the rise, racial and ethnic disparities in those stricken with the disease are staggering.

“Although people of color only represent 12 percent of Massachusetts [residents], they account for over 50 percent of the HIV-infected population,” said Bigby, who delivered the keynote address at HOLI’s meeting and “Healer Awards” ceremony.

According to Census data, African Americans make up 6.9 percent of the Commonwealth’s population, while Hispanics account for 7.9 percent. But the October update to the state Department of Health’s Massachusetts HIV/AIDS Surveillance Program reported that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among those infected — accounting for 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively. And those numbers are rising.

Despite the grim data, not all the news is bad, largely because of the work done by the people and organizations recognized with HOLI’s Healer Awards. Established in 1998 by Minister Franklin Wendell Hobbs, HOLI is a faith-based organization that aims to respond to the issues of HIV/AIDS as it disproportionately affects communities of color in the city of Boston.

The awardees included Bigby; Dr. Peter Drobac of Brigham and Women’s Hospital; state Rep. Gloria Fox; City Councilor Charles Yancey; Rev. Martin McLee of Union United Methodist Church; Linda Battle of Cambridge Health Alliance; Salem State College student and youth activist Antoinette Scibelli; Bill Walczak, CEO of Codman Square Health Center; Vernessa Fountain, president emeritus of HOLI’s board of directors; and Greg Eugene and Nancy Owens, people living with AIDS.

During the moving awards ceremony hosted by Rev. Keith Magee, president of HOLI’s board, Drobac spoke passionately about the realities of HIV.

Though some news media are reporting a decrease in the number of new cases of infection, Drobac implored attendees to remember the harsh reality: every 12 seconds a baby is born infected with HIV. In the time it takes to watch a movie, 500 babies across the world are born infected with the virus.

Gloria Fox underscored the importance of detection, pointing out that “the [Congressional] Black Caucus is setting an example nationally to get tested” and encouraging other African Americans in government to follow suit. She also spoke about the upcoming budget cycle and the importance of getting more funding for programs that have a direct impact on HIV/AIDS.

The state representative said she was accepting her award as a challenge to energize her work.

“We are up to the job, we are committed to it. It can be done,” she said.

Singer Teresa Burroughs-McNeal’s haunting rendition of the traditional hymn “There Is A Balm In Gilead” set a somber tone for the struggle ahead, while a spirited performance by the young men and women of Boston College’s Phaymus Dance Entertainment troupe provided an all-too-present reminder that many of the young people inheriting the challenge of creating communities without AIDS have never known a world free of the disease.

At Saturday’s ceremony, HOLI founder and executive director Hobbs exhorted attendees to action.

“It is absolutely crucial that everyone do something to be part of this movement — collectively, aggressively, innovatively — to respond to the state of emergency,” he said.