The patient he was treating in the Yale University-affiliated community health clinic was so much like him that Dr. Garth Graham thought he could almost be looking in a mirror. The man was African American, about his age, and lived near Graham's own home in New Haven, Conn.
But in contrast to Graham's good health, the man was coughing, feverish, and losing weight for no apparent reason. When Graham suggested that he take an HIV test, the patient got up and walked out of the treatment room without saying a word.
It would be nearly a year before Graham saw his patient again. By the time he did, in the year 2000, the man had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
"We had so many similar characteristics," said Graham, who has directed the Office of Minority Health (OMH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 2003 "He had two children, a family, and friends - and he died a difficult death. I couldn't help wondering what might have happened if he had taken that HIV test? By then, we already had medications that would have helped him, but his refusal to be tested meant he did not get the treatment he needed. His case reminded me that we are most vulnerable to HIV when we refuse to admit we might be at risk."
As a practicing physician and the director of OMH, Graham sees that vulnerability
every day in his work to improve health outcomes for minority communities in
the United States.
In the 26th year of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, African Americans and Latinos are increasingly at risk for HIV infection. Although both groups together make up less than 30 percent of the U.S. population, they make up nearly 70 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases.
These numbers spur Graham and his staff to emphasize HIV testing and treatment for World AIDS Day, which is observed each Dec. 1.
World AIDS Day is a chance for all of us to look back and remember the lives lost to AIDS," Graham says. "But it is also a time to look ahead to the lives we can save through prevention, testing, and treatment."
"HIV is preventable and treatable," Graham notes. "But to protect yourself and those you love, you have to know whether or not you are already living with HIV - and that means taking the test. Fortunately, finding an HIV testing location has never been easier - now you can go online (www.hivtest.org) and find one near your home or workplace."
Graham says, "HIV/AIDS is still a deadly threat - especially for African Americans and Latinos. My patient might be alive today if he had been able to admit he could be at risk for HIV and taken the test. People need to understand that ignorance is not bliss when it comes to HIV. Ignorance is a killer."
Most of all, Graham says, "People need to understand the risks, take the test, and protect their futures. My patient was young and had his whole life ahead of him - but on this World AIDS Day, he isn't here for his children or his family. The loss of all his potential was a tragedy."
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