A Southern Epidemic

I recently went to the premiere of an AIDS documentary aiming to examine AIDS in the South. Being close to both topics–AIDS and the South–I had high hopes that the film would give serious and emotional exposure to the very harsh reality of AIDS in the Southern United States. I held off on writing this post for a few days because I’m not in the business of writing film reviews and I know my opinion of the film doesn’t really matter on a larger scale. However, I do know that the facts matter and that an honest, straightforward exposure of the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic happening across the South and the contributing factors behind that epidemic can eventually make a difference.

The following is an excerpt from avert.org describing the AIDS in the South:

“As the epidemic has developed, it has become increasingly clear that the quality of prevention and treatment services an individual receives is influenced as much by where they live, as by their socio-economic group. In 2010, a report criticised the response to the AIDS epidemic in the 17 states in “the South.” According to the report, a combination of socioeconomic conditions and state laws and policies means that this region is disproportionately affected by the epidemic; half of all people living with HIV live in the South although this region is home to just over a third of the population. Poverty, poor access to healthcare relative to the rest of the country, a focus on abstinence based sex education, and laws that criminalise HIV transmission and restrict harm reduction programmes for IDUs are some of the factors which explain why the risk of becoming infected with HIV and dying from AIDS is highest in the South. A study examining data from across the country also found that, for socioeconomic reasons, non-white men and particularly non-white women residing in the South experience the worst clinical outcomes after being diagnosed with HIV.”

The Human Rights Watch published a report called “Southern Exposure” in late 2010 elaborating on many of the social and economic factors that contribute to the alarmingly high infection rates in the South. Poverty, lack of access to health care, lack of education and high incarceration rates are some of the many factors that make the South a hot-spot for the AIDS epidemic. These problems are often worse in minority communities, explaining the disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS in the black community. Because of the lack of access to health care, many people are being diagnosed in the late stages of the disease and some elect not to start HIV treatment because of the stigma still surrounding HIV/AIDS in the South.

The report goes on to say,

The South is at the heart of the HIV epidemic in the United States, with more people living with HIV and dying of AIDS than in any region in the country. The South has:

  • the highest rates of new infections,
  • the most AIDS deaths,
  • the largest numbers of adults and adolescents living with HIV/AIDS.

The problems are clear and the results are clear but the solution is not. The issue now is how to slow, stop and eventually reverse the factors that make the South so vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. I know the answers cannot come overnight but I am very hopeful that a solution is possible. It will come from open discussion and collaborative action between citizens, activists, lawmakers, local, state and national elected officials, and anyone who is infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. AIDS lives in all of our communities, whether we want to admit it or not. Developing a solution is a group effort and has to start with the realization that AIDS in the South is a serious and immediate problem that deserves our attention.

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AIDS in the Capitol

As of last year, 3.2% of Washington, DC residents were infected with HIV/AIDS. Along with being our nation’s capitol, that number also makes DC the AIDS capitol of the United States with the highest per-capita prevalence. Just to give you an example for comparison–I started this project in Miami where HIV/AIDS diagnoses and deaths are alarmingly high. In Miami, the infection rate is 1.2%.  The numbers in DC are overwhelming and new infections are found predominately in black males, following the national trend.

However, there is also a second AIDS trend in DC that stands out to me. I am continually encouraged by the amount of AIDS awareness happening in DC and the AIDS campaigns across the city. I was a little bit shocked the first time I saw an AIDS awareness poster in a metro station. I have never been in a city where HIV/AIDS awareness posters were plastered on the walls at metro stations and bus stops. I’ve now gotten used to the sight and for the first time I’m able to really understand what AIDS patients and activists across the country have been telling me all along: It’s a huge problem because we aren’t talking about it. We aren’t paying attention to it. AIDS isn’t in the conversation anymore.

DC is trying to bring AIDS back into the conversation with this city-wide campaign. Here are a few of the posters I’ve been seeing across town:

I can say for sure that after seeing these posters around the city everyday, I’m much more acclimated and comfortable seeing “AIDS” on my way to work or my way to the grocery store. It almost feels normal. I can only hope that this campaign is having the same effect on others and is encouraging the open discussion of HIV/AIDS in DC.


Life with AIDS, revisited

So, nine months since my last post? No better time to try to start again than now, I suppose. I’m still trying to get to the end of my thesis project but I think there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel (I know, I know. Longest tunnel ever.).

I was inspired to post today because of National HIV Testing Day and some of the stories that I’ve seen online relating to it. So many people are reaching out and encouraging others to get tested, know their status and live a healthy lifestyle. These accounts took me back to the HIV/AIDS Activism stories that I’ve been working on all these months and reminded me why I started this project in the first place.

I’ve published two stories of activism since I last posted:

Maria’s story is here.

And Dab’s is here.

Both Dab and Maria have been such supporters of my project and very inspirational to me along the way. I feel so privileged that they were both willing open up to me and share their stories. It’s amazing how many lives these two people touch! Even when faced with a task as difficult as living with HIV/AIDS, both Dab and Maria have devoted their entire lives to helping others in need–in need of testing, in need of care, in need of a friend.

I hope that you enjoy these two stories–two more are on the way!

Shannon


Change of plans, CNN here I come!

So fortunately/unfortunately, I’ve had a major change of plans in the past few days. I found out on Friday that I got a multimedia journalism internship at CNN (good news) but I also found out that I start on October 3rd (not-as-good news, but still okay)! That means that I’m temporarily relocating to Atlanta for a few months and that my entire thesis project will be put on hold for a few months.

First of all, I have to say that I’m beyond excited (and very nervous!) for this opportunity at CNN. CNN is a news organization that I’ve admired for a long time and, I have to say, one that I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work with. I think this internship is going to be really good for me at this ending-phase of my education and I look forward to learning A LOT while I’m there!

On another note, I’m a little bit sad about putting the Life with AIDS Project temporarily on hold. I feel like I just recently got to a place where I had some momentum behind the project and things were really starting to come together. I’ve already talked to a lot of the people involved with the project and, thankfully, they’ve all been very supportive and open to working with me in a few months when it’s time to come back to Life with AIDS. I’m hoping that means that I’ll be able to pick everything up in January where I left off and that my project won’t be suffering at all because of this hiatus. I’m working with such great people that I have a feeling they will support me through it all–something I’m so very thankful for.

Overall, I’ve gotten past a lot of the overwhelming feelings I had on Friday when I first found out about the internship and I’m feeling really good and positive about what’s to come. Things are coming together with this internship just like I know they’ll come together again for Life with AIDS when the time is right. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in a few months! It’s all happening!

 


Arkansas, here I come!

I’m so excited to say that I finally talked to two amazing women in Arkansas yesterday, both with incredible stories. Both women were infected with HIV by the men in their lives–men that they didn’t know were having affairs. These women weren’t engaging in risky behaviors. Neither of them were prostitutes or IV drug users and neither suspected that they were being infected with a potentially deadly virus.

Connie, a woman from the Arkansas Delta, was infected after her long-time boyfriend was having an affair with another man. As surprising as this might sound coming from small towns in the South, this story is not as uncommon as you might think. Many men are classified as being on the “down low” about their sexuality–here’s an excerpt from the CDC that explains more:

The term is often used to describe the behavior of men who have sex with other men as well as women and who do not identify as gay or bisexual. These men may refer to themselves as being “on the down low,” “on the DL,” or “on the low low.” The term has most often been associated with African American men. Although the term originated in the African American community, the behaviors associated with the term are not new and not specific to black men who have sex with men.

This secret life puts many women at risk who don’t even know that they should be worried about contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. This goes to show that anyone, anywhere can be HIV positive and it’s so important that we begin to recognize these new faces of AIDS to eliminate fear and stigma. I look forward to meeting with Connie and Ann and hearing their stories of heartbreak, struggle and success face to face.

…and of course, a trip to Arkansas never hurt anyone!

Once again, this project has many expenses in the near future. If you’d like to help me tell these very important stories and give a voice to those that have often been passed over, please click here.


Calling Baton Rouge!

One of the stories that I’ve been working on getting organized and scheduled is with Joyce Turner Keller, a bishop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She’s a 60-year-old woman who was diagnosed with AIDS 10 years ago but was infected five years before that when she was raped by a man who attacked her in her own home when she was living in Picayune, Mississippi. Unsure of who to turn to or what the consequences might be, Ms. Keller kept pretty quiet about the rape until a car accident five years later landed her in the hospital with unexplained pain. This is when she was offered an HIV test.

After getting the diagnosis, Ms. Keller decided that she was meant to be a voice for women struggling with HIV or AIDS but wasn’t always met with kindness when she disclosed her status to people in her home state of Louisiana. She met adversity at every turn, even when speaking with doctors and nurses about how to take care of herself. Deciding that she wanted a better option for herself and others, she decided to start Aspirations, a non-profit organization that started out providing HIV/AIDS testing and awareness but has since branched out to many other chronic illnesses as well.

I knew as soon as I read Ms. Keller’s story that I wanted to include her in the Life with AIDS project. She has such an inspiring story–a story of never, not even for a second, letting her AIDS diagnoses slow her down or discourage her. She told me that sometime in late October Aspirations was going to be involved with the Baton Rouge meeting of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Implementation Dialogue and they finally set the date for October 25th. I’m so excited about meeting Ms. Keller in person and getting to be a part of such an important event–one that will hopefully set the tone for the continuation of dialog about HIV/AIDS in the United States.

Baton Rouge, here I come!

If you’d like to support the Life with AIDS project and help me get to Louisiana, please click here.


AIDS in Arkansas

Good news! The Arkansas Department of Health is partnering with the Black AIDS Institute to provide free HIV testing across the state this month. The three testing sites (West Memphis, Texarkana and Conway) will also have lots of information and guest appearances by a number of people. It’s a great opportunity to spread awareness and if you’d like to learn more about the event, click here.

I’m so proud to see the Arkansas Department of Health stepping up and taking preventative measures against HIV/AIDS. This is what my project is all about–understanding that HIV is certainly no longer isolated to gay communities in large cities and taking the proper actions to educate all people about HIV/AIDS and how they can keep themselves healthy. Education is key to prevention and I hope to hear success stories from the Arkansas testing events.

If you’d like to support my Life with AIDS project, click here.