On a late autumn day, two teens hesitantly approached the big white van parked outside the Rainbow PUSH headquarters on South Drexel Boulevard. They sized it up briefly, then, turned to the driver standing nearby.

“Hey man, this where we get tested?” a bespectacled youth with short braids asked.

“Yeah, just step inside,” Daniel West responded, pointing to the van. “They’ll tell you what to do.”

West drives the van that provides free HIV/AIDS tests for private health care provider Regional Care Association as part of a broad outreach effort to reduce infection rates in the black community.

The Coalition for Justice and Respect, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and other city civil rights organizations are partnering on a campaign to cut new HIV/AIDS infections by 3 percent among black Chicagoans by 2012. Information sessions and testing at community centers and schools will be the crux of the program.

Marc Loveless, executive director of Coalition for Justice, said one of the main messages of the campaign is that anyone who is sexually active is at risk from the disease.

“If you are having sex with any person, you are not at low-risk,” he said. “There’s no such thing as low risk.”

Organizers are concerned that adolescents and prisoners are contributing to the disease’s continuing spread in the black community.

“What we want to do is increase the testing, have more tests in schools where the youth are sexually active and more tests in the jails, which are the epicenter of the spread of HIV,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow PUSH, at a recent press conference to publicize the campaign.

Most HIV/AIDS experts agree that aggressive prevention and outreach efforts are needed. The Chicago Department of Public Health has reported that new HIV cases among blacks have declined by almost 30 percent from 2000 to 2006.

Lora Branch, the director of administration for the health department’s STD/HIV/AIDS division, attributes the success, in part, to effective needle exchange programs. Increased condom distribution and new collaborations among the department, public organizations and private companies has also helped. But she stressed that more needs to be done.

A recent department study found that 66 percent of Chicago black men who have sex with other men and were tested did not know they were HIV/AIDS positive.

“Many of the people who find out they are positive do not believe they are at high risk,” Branch said.

This lingering lack of awareness concerning the scope of the disease contributes to disproportionately high incidence rates among blacks in Chicago and nationally, health experts note. While African-Americans make up about 36 percent of Chicago’s population, they accounted for 55 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2006, the most recently available data.

The reasons behind this trend are complex, Branch said. They range from economic and social conditions to the stigmatization of the disease in the black community. To adequately fight the epidemic, Prentice Smith, an education and health mentor with the Illinois Department of Public Health, insisted more participation by blacks is needed.

“You have parents who are not educating their kids as well as they should be,” he said. “The schools take a hands-off approach, because they’re focused on the academics.”

As for funding for HIV/AIDS programs, Branch added, “We have not received an increase in HIV prevention [public funds] in many years. It’s an area that is always under-funded and could just use a lot more resources and attention.”

Xavier Brown, a junior at Proviso West High School, took a test in the Wellness on Wheels van parked outside Rainbow PUS H- he endorses more initiatives like this.

“We don’t have anything like this [at Proviso],” Brown said. “Y’all should bring this van to all the schools.”

Graphs show: 1) New diagnoses of HIV among Chicago blacks has declined. 2) Blacks nationally are diagnosed with AIDS at higher rates than other groups.