Just ahead of National HIV/AIDS Testing Day, journalist Lisa Ling reports a special Our America with Lisa Ling – Black America’s Secret Epidemic airing on Thursday, June 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN. The show covers a single woman looking for love, a young gay man who fears an early death, a survivor who has lived his entire life with HIV, a woman who believes her husband has infected her, and a former drug abuser who may have infected countless women.
Ling talked to the Tom Joyner Morning Show about what she found out while reporting the special.
Are we still calling this a secret?
It is still being called a secret because the level of testing is really not where it should be. I think that there is such stigma in all communities but in particular, the African-American community about getting tested and about talking about the fact that it’s a population where HIV infection is so present. And proportionally, African-Americans cone up with more HIV virus than any other? It’s true. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, there is a higher rate of HIV diagnoses than in some countries in Africa. It’s a real catastrophe. And in the American South, it’s becoming a real hotbed and there, particularly because there’s such a stigma attached to it. I visited a lot of Black churches, and I learned that in a place where there should be discussion about these types of things and there shouldn’t be judgment, there’s no talk about sex at all.
Not in the Black church.
Right. We profiled one woman who decided to come out because she felt as a Christian, it was her obligation to try and educate people because if they don’t have HIV themselves they probably know someone. We visited churches with her and when we asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they at least knew someone who had HIV, you can’t believe the number of hands that went up. But those people in all likelihood have never talked about it. And a couple of people approached her that were living with HIV and they didn’t know what to do about it because they were living in the shadows.
What was the most disturbing discoveries you made while reporting the show? People have become very lax about safe sex and about getting tested. We wanted to air the show now ahead of National Testing Day that is this Friday. We wanted to generate the conversation and promote the fact that we should be talking about this more. The truth is if you get tested early enough you can live a long and normal life. But if you wait too long, and your disease becomes too serious, you could really get sick and die. But HIV is a manageable disease, you just have to find out you have it early enough to get medicated. But you can prevent this disease. There are a lot of things that are not preventable but this is one that is. If you do have it, you shouldn’t feel bad about it, because it’s much easier to manage HIV than kidney disease or heart disease. You just take a couple of pills and you wouldn’t even know you have it. Some people have such decreased viral loads that it becomes non-detectable.
Did you talk to older people too? Because that seems to be a growing group of those infected.
Sexually transmitted diseases are becoming more rampant in the older generation. If you already have an STD, it’s much easier to become infected so you have to be careful that you don’t want to spread another STD to someone else.
You talked to a single woman that contracted HIV who is looking for love. We have a lot of women in the audience also looking for love. How does this impact them?
There are women who have been in relationships with men who didn’t reveal to them that they have HIV. Because African-Americans often have sex with other African-Americans, the importance of having that open communication is even more essential. One of the women had been in a relationship with a man who had been in prison, which is a hotbed of HIV. Sometimes [the incarcerated] get better medication while in prison but when they return, they aren’t as diligent about [treatment]. So ladies, be careful who you love.
You also talked to a woman who believes her husband infected her.
She believes that he was infected, and was too nervous about talking to her about it before they got married. She doesn’t believe that he had extramarital affairs, but that he already had it. Sexual things are hard to talk about, but they’re so vital.