Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

New Findings on HIV Should Spark Fresh Education Efforts in Black Communities

July 24th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

There has always been this myth that people in sub-Saharan Africa were more likely to get HIV because of differences in their sexual behaviour, or that they are more promiscuous.

“This shows that it’s not that simple, and I think it will be an important message for education programmes in these areas. — Dr. Ade Fakoya from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (Source: BBC)

When I first began combing different news sources for Black higher ed reporting, I found a number of stories that focused on Black colleges’ efforts to slow the rise of HIV in the African American community. Such efforts invariably included education on routes of transmission, risky behaviors, and testing.

Now education efforts on HBCU campuses, in churches, at neighborhood clinics, and throughout the Black community will have to add an additional piece, one which may transform how Black people around the world think about HIV/AIDS.

Last week newspapers around the globe covered the discovery of a specific gene variant, common in people of African descent, that increases the carrier’s succeptibility to HIV by 40%. Here’s how:

The protein linked to the gene is called Duffy Antigen Receptor for Chemokines, or DARC. People with the variant do not have this particular receptor — a type of molecular doorway into cells — on their red blood cells.

People lacking the receptor are protected against infection by a malaria parasite known as Plasmodium vivax. This parasite is not the one responsible for the multitudes of malaria deaths that now occur yearly in Africa, but is still seen in some parts of Asia and the Middle East.

The researchers believe the gene variant arose long ago, perhaps protecting people in Africa against a deadly strain of malaria that may have swept through populations.

“We’re probably talking about tens of thousands of years ago,” said Robin Weiss of University College London. — Will Dunham for Reuters

The study was conducted among Black people in the U.S., about 60% of whom carry this gene variant. In sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 90% of the Black population carries this variant, which continues to protect carriers against malaria. Scientists estimate that this adaptation is responsible for roughly 11% of all HIV infections in Africa.

The correlation between this genetic adaptation and vulnerability to HIV infection is chilling. Reuters reports,

They found the variant to be far more common among the U.S. blacks infected with HIV than those not infected.

Only a small proportion of people not of African descent carry this genetic mutation, and it is just about absent in people of European descent, the researchers said.

This is not the first time that a genetic adaptation that protects sub-Saharan Africans from malaria has proven life-threatening in other ways. Those who carry the sickle cell gene are largely resistant to malaria infection, but two parents with sickle cell can produce a child who has sickle cell anemia, a condition with potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Unlike sickle cell anemia, however, HIV is preventable; and, curiously, the discovery of the DARC gene variant might provide a potentially more effective approach to educating Black people about disease prevention.

Consider, once again, the efforts to educate Black college students on this subject. Students of all ethnicities present a challenge to HIV/AIDS educators, especially traditional-aged undergraduates who, for the most part, look healthy and feel invincible. College is time to take risks, and in the traditional college atmosphere, the likelihood of actually contracting a fatal illness from another student can seem very remote.

The new evidence of Black people’s greater vulnerability to infection, however, changes the conversation on transmission and risk. There is a big difference between speaking with Black people about an illness that many still perceive as a problem for a different race and dialoguing with the African American community about a disease that poses a very specific risk to its members. While the likelihood of encountering a partner with HIV may seem small to many, students of African descent may be moved by the fact that their chance of contracting the infection from such a partner is considerably greater that it is for the non-Black student down the hall or at the college up the road.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, AIDS, Black Students, Current Events, HIV, race

3 Responses

  1. George Malik Abdul-Mahdi


    Period, and of story. Thanks so much for posting such timely and fruitful information.


  2. Ajuan Mance

    Knowledge is power, and I hope that this knowledge will help African Americans to change the way we think about our health and our choices.

  3. Dulce

    This was a great post. Especially since I am in health care you know that means alot to me. I was shocked to learn a few years ago that there were two types of the HIV strain. HIV 1 and HIV 2 which is said to be a more potent and deadly type and of course, found mostly in sub sahara africa.

    what i wonder though is what can we do to decrease transmission. you can preach safer sex, getting tested, choosing partners wisely all day long but it breaks my heart that it doesn’t help. I am hurting for us. I work in a pediatric clinic and i see black and hispanic teenagers contracting and passing along STD’s faster than text messages. 🙁

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