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Black Leaders Urge AIDS Action

Black leaders urged the Bush administration Friday to step up efforts to slow the alarming spread of AIDS among minorities, calling soaring infection rates a national emergency.

The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS concluded a two-day conference by announcing a comprehensive proposal that includes more money for HIV-related housing and new AIDS outreach programs.

"The face of AIDS has changed, and it is now ours," said Donna Christian-Christiansen, the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The commission called for more than $500 million for the caucus' minority HIV/AIDS prevention efforts and asked President Bush to make sure enough federal AIDS money is spent on the racial and social groups that need it most.

"We have to tell him this is not a time to level-fund, which is to under-fund," Christian-Christiansen said. "This is not a time to cut back, when people are dying."

The commission's chairman, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, said slowing the epidemic will take a commitment involving black leaders from Hollywood, the clergy, big business and politics.

"If a dog falls down a well somewhere, the whole world will be watching the rescue," he said. "The world seems not to be aware of the threat to all of us, to civilization, by AIDS."

Bush, who has faced criticism about his commitment to fighting AIDS, has announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Secretary of State Colin Powell will head a task force focused on fighting AIDS in other countries.

He has chosen an openly gay Wisconsin man to direct the administration's AIDS policy.

The government, marking the 20th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, expressed concern last week about higher HIV rates among blacks.

Health officials are particularly worried about the infection rates among young black gays and bisexuals, saying the stigma in the black community of having HIV or AIDS may be keeping testing rates low.

Government statistics showed more than 282,000 AIDS cases among blacks in the United States through 2000 - a figure disproportionately high. Whites accounted for about 324,000 cases.

Even more alarming, figures released earlier this year show 30 percent of young gay black men in major U.S. cities are infected with the AIDS virus.

Advocates cite a lack of attention to preventive health care among blacks. Moreover, they say black men often do not participate in gay networks where safe sex is commonly discussed.

The commission's proposal consists of five points - more money to fight AIDS, new and innovative outreach programs, new housing for people with the AIDS virus, the elimination of racial disparities in sexually transmitted disease rates, and stronger efforts to fight AIDS internationally, particularly in Africa.

Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said that eliminating the stigma faced by gay and bisexual blacks is alo critical to stopping the disease.

"Let us work together to ensure that homophobia, ignorance and low self-esteems no longer feed the spread of AIDS," she said.

By Erin McClam
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