Black stars take public HIV tests to assist BAI

LOS ANGELES: A cadre of black celebrities have pledged to undergo public HIV tests to raise awareness of the epidemic in the African-American community and encourage others to get tested themselves.

LOS ANGELES: A cadre of black celebrities have pledged to undergo public HIV tests to raise awareness of the epidemic in the African-American community and encourage others to get tested themselves.

Celebrities including Jimmy Jean-Louis, Regina King, Hill Harper, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Vanessa Williams, and Tatyana Ali were scheduled to be on hand June 25 at the Screen Actors Guild headquarters in LA for a Black AIDS Institute (BAI)-supported media education event. The event will call attention to National HIV Testing Day, which takes place on Wednesday, the annual community-based effort by the National Association of People with AIDS meant to encourage early diagnosis and routine testing for HIV/AIDS.

The BAI event is designed to "help take the fear out of the testing process" with the power of celebrity, said Doug Hochstedler, VP at Cohn & Wolfe, which handles media relations for the BAI.

It also serves as "a call to action," he added, "to get folks in the African-American community to talk about HIV [and] take action on Wednesday or anytime this week ... If [stars] can do it in public, you should be able to do it in private."

According to the Centers for Disease Control estimates, within the black community, HIV is a crisis of epic proportions: Black Americans represent more than 54% of all new HIV/AIDS cases in the US, and 46% of black gay men in America may already be HIV positive. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African- American women aged 24-34.

"I think that people are scared, or just don't think about [testing]," said Phill Wilson, BAI's executive director. "They need something to remind them."

The organization has conducted public HIV testing with other types of leaders in the past, Wilson said, such as clergy, elected officials, and civil rights activists, but this is the first time it has turned to "favorite celebrities to literally save lives."

According to Hochstedler, media targets include both general market and African-American-specific publications.

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