HARLEM — It was after returning from a trip to South Africa to learn more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic there, and seeing children who had been left orphaned by it, that Grammy-award winning singer Alicia Keys says she noticed a difference in the response to the illness abroad and here in the states.
Despite dire statistics that show black women are the fastest-growing group of newly infected HIV/AIDS patients in the U.S., the same sort of urgency just wasn't present.
"Here I am talking about what's happening globally, but maybe there's not enough conversation about what's happening here in America," Keys said Thursday during a public forum at Harlem Hospital.
Now Keys is using her celebrity to do something about it.
Earlier this year she launched EMPOWERED, a campaign with the group Greater Than AIDS to inform women about the disease. She joined with Rep. Charles Rangel, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, former NBA player Vin Baker and HIV/AIDS activists Thursday to raise awareness about the continuing dangers of the disease.
About 1.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States and almost half are black. Black women make up 64 percent of women infected with the disease. They are 20 times more likely that their white counterparts and 4 times more likely than Latinas to be infected with the disease.
The problem is even worse in New York City. Denise Soares, senior vice president for Harlem Hospital Center, said 80 percent of the people in their HIV clinic are black and 40 percent of that group is women.
The rate of infection in Harlem is four to five times higher than the national average, said Soares.
But with advances in treating the disease, Keys said the urgency surrounding it has dissipated.
"We don't see people just dropping off like flies and dying," said Keys. "We saw that 30 years ago and so that was why there was an outrage. It's like I'm not just going to let people die in front of me."
That lack of urgency is having dire consequences. There are 50,000 new HIV infections per year. Keys called the statistics "unacceptable."
Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA said stigma and misconceptions around the disease are hurting its treatment. The false belief that HIV is mainly a gay disease and a lack of acceptance of gays by society all "drive people underground," she said.
"We are driving them away from information and health services," Gayle said.
Stephanie Brown, an HIV/AIDS activist, recently appeared on MTV to talk about the disease. She was 19 and had gone in for a pap smear when she was informed that she had HIV. Up until that point, Brown said her biggest worry about being sexually active was getting pregnant.
"We are relying on men to know their status too much," Brown said in explaining why the infection rate among black women is growing.
"Women are knocking down the doors to get tested," she said. "With men, it's like pulling teeth."
The goal, said Keys, is to have her son grow up in a generation where HIV/AIDS has been eradicated. That begins with acceptance of people's differences and dialogue, she said.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of, there's nothing we can't discuss, there's nothing we can't work through," Keys said.
"We are all in the same boat no matter if we are positive or negative. We all have a responsibility, an opportunity really, to join voices."