- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

As we try to straighten the tangled web we have weaved around the HIV/AIDS crisis, the nation’s capital is gearing up for a very special confab this summer, the 2012 International AIDS Conference, just as a cultural battle brews anew in America.

The chief suspects are called homophobia, stigmatizing and hedonism - and they are, to a measurable extent.

But can we not cast aspersions or talk about pleasure principles, or even sex education, poverty, gender inequality, incarceration and the everybody-know-their-status aspects?

Let’s talk instead about two obvious reasons why HIV/AIDS is running a ruinous course through America: ignorance and illiteracy. They are problems that afflict American society as a whole.

Exhibit A is a 2009 USA Today story headlined “Literacy study: 1 in 7 U.S. adults are unable to read this story,”

“A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA - about one in seven - are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle,” the story reads.

The same year that story was published, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released several snapshots of black American afflictions:

c Blacks are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV, accounting for 44 percent of all new infections, with black men accounting for 70 percent of the estimated new infections among all blacks.

c Black women, meanwhile, accounted for 30 percent of the estimated new infections among all blacks, and the overwhelming majority of them (85 percent) acquired HIV through heterosexual sex.

Consider this, too: As the capital of the free world, the District is certainly positioned to strut its hospitality and entertainment plumage during the HIV/AIDS conference in July, but its head ought to be buried deeply in the silt of the Potomac River, since 19 percent of D.C. residents over 16 are functionally illiterate.

And you know what that means.

They are unable to read the instructions for condoms, arguably the most publicized form of HIV/AIDS prevention.

And, when it comes to their own, individual health care responsibilities, they are unable to read and comprehend complex instructions and precautionary measures on prescriptions that are given to them to arrest the development of HIV.

What’s also truly frightening is the fact that as we’ve pushed and funded for the testing of our young population for sexually transmitted diseases, that very demographic continues to leapfrog out of school while their illiterate parents look the other way.

Yet, sadly, even the educated are ignorant.

Exhibit B: “Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community. It was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall,” Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Republican, said recently on the SiriusXM channel “OutQ.”

“My understanding is that it is virtually - not completely, but virtually - impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex … very rarely” transmitted,” he added.

That a college-educated, 43-year-old, elected official spewed such ignorance is unfortunate during a public health crisis.

So let’s talk solutions.

When the mortgage crisis dragged us down, up sprung a cottage industry labeled financial literacy.

When the sinking U.S. economy cried out for skilled American workers, we began turning our attention to industry-specific charter schools and community-college courses.

Well, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is crying out, too.

Being health care illiterate creates a host of problems for an individual who is relatively healthy. For a person or family living with HIV/AIDS, it is critical they understand every word spoken or written on their behalf.

If D.C. and America’s stakeholders really and truly want to hold their holds high in July for the HIV/AIDS conference, they will have to do more than the usual dog-and-pony routines of handing out material that people cannot read and comprehend.

At the end of the day, they will be judged on how effectively they are stamping out health care illiteracy and ignorance - and the roots of those evils have absolutely nothing to do with homophobia, stigmatizing or hedonism.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.