The November day in 1991 when basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was HIV-positive was a sobering reality check. All of a sudden, the disease many dismissed as affecting only gay men and intravenous drug users had hit a major celebrity.
But the news struck Regina King especially hard. Then 20 years old and already making a living as an actor in Los Angeles, King had just broken up with her first love and first sexual partner -- a man she knew had cheated on her with at least one of the women Johnson had been with.
People with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) have a weakened immune system. As a result, they are more likely to develop certain cancers. This includes non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). Also known as AIDS-related lymphoma, this is a cancer of white blood cells. White blood cells fight infection.
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a later stage of HIV infection. Fortunately, antiretroviral therapy has cut the rate of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in HIV-positive people significantly.
"I was terrified," says King, who is best known for her roles in the films Ray and Boyz n the Hood, and currently stars in TNT’s Southland TV series. "It took me two years to get up the courage to be tested."
Fortunately, King was free of the disease, but the experience taught her the importance of smart sexual behavior and knowing your HIV status. In 2007 she was approached by the Black AIDS Institute (blackaids.org), a Los Angeles-based think tank devoted to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS in the black community. BAI was asking celebrities to undergo a public HIV test to raise awareness about the importance of getting tested, and King jumped at the chance. "These days, having HIV isn’t necessarily a death sentence," says King, "but not finding out could be."
HIV in the Black Community
And although HIV/AIDS does not discriminate, statistics show that infection rates in the black community are alarmingly high. According to the CDC, the HIV infection rate for black men is six times greater than for white men, and 15 times greater for black women than white. The most recent CDC report also found that although the black community makes up just 12% of the population, 46% of Americans living with HIV are black. In total, about 1 million Americans have HIV, though 21% don’t know they are infected. "The numbers are really alarming," says King. "And I think a lot of it is lack of information."