GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - As leaders address the issue of HIV and AIDS within the African-American community, many find that stigma and fear are as difficult to fight as the disease itself.
On Wednesday, South Mississippi AIDS Task Force leaders did their part to spread the message as part of the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
"One of the biggest problems I've seen with the HIV in our community is denial," said TNathan Fairley, organizer and member of the South Mississippi AIDS Task Force.
There is power in education, but only if someone is listening.
"This is a disease that grows in darkness and ignorance," Fairley said. "So, when you allow those combinations to exist, you're going to wind up with an epidemic proportion of this disease in our community."
Statistics show that African-Americans account for 12 percent of the country's population, but 48 percent of those living with HIV.
"I believe that [if] we as the church will step up and push it, I think the people will come out and listen," said Monica Benjamin, SMATF member. "But we're sitting silent as if this is going to go away, which it's not. It's just going to spread and continue to destroy our communities."
The event at the Isaiah Fredricks Community Center in Gulfport brought together health professionals to offer specific information about HIV/AIDS prevention.
Health screenings were also provided at the event.
While attendance was not overwhelming, officials said that will not stop them from trying to save lives.
"We must educate our community about what HIV is, about what AIDS is and how to combat them," Fairley said. "If we don't take that upon ourselves to do it, nobody else is."
Teresa Gatpatan was one the few who came to learn.
"I just think it's so important to come out and feed yourself with the proper information," she said. "Also, be tested. Get the test. It's going to be what it's going to be."
Gatpatan remains unsure what it will take to get others involved in the process.
"I don't know. I really do not know," she said. "You have to want it for yourself. You have to want this. You have to want to know."