When Debra Fraser-Howze started an HIV/AIDS outreach organization for blacks more than 20 years ago, she was essentially all alone.
Before starting the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Fraser-Howze, 55, was a health care counselor working with teenage mothers in New York. Her work there inspired her to start the commission in 1987, the only organization focusing on blacks and the AIDS crisis at the time.
AIDS was still considered a “G.R.I.D or Gay-Related Immunity Disease,” Fraser-Howze recalled.
She’s still advocating for blacks today and has turned her attention to the high rates of HIV/AIDS among black women, and to expanding rapid testing for the disease in the black community.
“HIV is a 26-year-old disease. That means that no one born since 1982 remembers a time when HIV and AIDS were not serious health risks,” Fraser-Howze said.
Her National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS is recognized as one of the leading black HIV/AIDS organizations in the world. She has also advised Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr.
But for most of her 26 years, Fraser-Howze, a native of Harlem New York, has been involved in advocacy and outreach initiatives regarding the black community.
The commission worked with theologians, politicians and health care providers to inform public policy regarding blacks, who were largely uninformed about the spread of HIV.
Currently, the New York-based commission is the largest black HIV/AIDS, non-profit organization in America, with 17 established affiliates, including in Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago.
In January, Fraser-Howze left the organization she founded to become a vice president with OraSure Technologies. The Pennsylvania-based group creates, manufactures and markets oral fluid specimen collection devices. Fraser-Howze is working with the organization to reach the black community by using mouth-swabbing devices to test for HIV. Many blacks, she noted, don’t go for testing, and hopes this will make it easier for them to know their status.
“I felt that it was a perfect fit,” she said. “OraSure has worked for years to promote outreach services for our community and provide the easiest possible method of testing for HIV.”
Fraser-Howze credits her time as a youth counselor in New York as inspiration for her work.
A divorced mother of four, Fraser-Howze became a single mother at age 17 while still in high school. She went on to graduate from New York’s Hunter College with a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communications. She later attended Baruch College in New York, graduating with a master’s degree in public administration.
Fraser-Howze served as director of teenage services at the New York Urban League in the 1980s. She worked with many single teenage mothers who knew about the dangers of STDs, but not did not have the proper information to protect themselves against HIV.
“I worked with teen mothers and they reminded me lot of myself at their age,” she said. “They had so many questions about the proper use of contraceptives and there were few facilities that would provide them with the information necessary to have there questions answered.”
Ironically, it is the demographic of black women that have been disproportionately affected the most by the AIDS epidemic, accounting for the highest rate of new cases in the last five years.
Black women overall also account for more than a quarter of all new AIDS cases, which is the third leading cause of death among black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are especially seeing an influx of cases involving black women over 50,” she said. “Perhaps it could be due to the assumption that they are less at risk because of age, but one should always assume they could be at risk and should practice protective measures.”