Wrriten By Jesse Muhammad
“This was more than about getting a free ticket to see some performers at a concert. It’s about life and death”, said Cynthia Gonzales. The 17-year-old stood in line for nearly two hours to get tested for HIV at a local Houston clinic and in turn received a free pass to attend the annual HipHop4HIV concert at the Arena Theatre.
“People in the Black and Latino community are dying from AIDS more than anyone else so I got tested to protect myself and encourage my friends”, said Gonzales, who was one out of the several thousands who got tested to get a ticket. “I love music but AIDS is serious business.”
Experts are especially deeming it serious in Gonzales’ area after a recent study unveiled that rate of AIDS deaths remained leveled in other parts of the country from 2001 to 2006 but rose by more than 10 percent in the South.
The report, titled Southern States Manifesto: Update 2008, was released on July 21 by the Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC) to continue describing the disproportionate impact of the rapidly growing interrelated epidemics of HIV/AIDS and STDs on communities in the southern United States and the shared challenges people living in the South face in working to combat them.
This report, a follow up to a SAC study conducted in 2002, is based on data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state health departments and academic scientists. The 17 southern states included in the study are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
What were some of the alarming findings? The 17 aforementioned states are home to only 36 percent of the nation’s population, yet half of all U.S. AIDS deaths in 2005 were in the South, and more than half of all Americans with HIV lived in the region in 2006. Nine of the 15 states with the highest HIV diagnosis rates and more than 40 percent of all new infections are in the South. Of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest rates of AIDS cases in 2006, 16 were in the South.
The South has the highest number of adults/adolescents living with AIDS, the highest number of people dying from AIDS, the highest rates of persons living with HIV (not AIDS) and comprises 65% of all AIDS cases among rural populations.
According to the SAC the issue is “the South is faced with a crisis of having to provide medical and support care for increasing numbers of infected individuals without adequate funding. This is especially among young and among minority Southern communities.”
18-year-old Dwayne Thompson, headed to Prairie View A&M University, said “I got tested to make sure I’m clean because I’ve been sexually active for a long time and was afraid to know my status. But to see rappers like Bun-B, Plies, Lil Wayne and others speaking out, it encouraged me. My results are negative and I plan to keep it that way.”
“The sad fact is that we have been seeing this growing trend of those infected in the South for awhile now,” said Kelly McCann, CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston. She further stated that “a lot of citizens in those rural areas are not being educated or tested. Education is the first step and a necessity but more testing is needed.”
Lack of resources in the South
The report states that the South is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to receiving federal anti-AIDS funding compared to other regions. Documents in the report pinpoints that many areas of the South continue to face ongoing poverty and discrimination, placing individuals and communities at elevated risk of infection.
The SAC called for more “age-appropriate, science-driven education for prevention of all sexually transmitted diseases, along with increased federal funding for prevention, treatment, care, and housing to rectify the historical inequities embedded in the federal HIV and STD funding portfolios.”
AIDS isn’t the only ailment plaguing the areas. Southern states perform poorly on most health indicators in comparison to other states, as noted in study titled The Commonwealth Fund Commission on Aiming Higher, released in June 2007. The 14 states and Washington, DC, considered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the South Region hold 15 of the bottom 21 rankings and 11 of the 12 lowest-ranked states.
The health score card for the South only gets worse.
The ten states with the lowest ranking in overall health by the United Health Foundation were all in the South. The region also accounts for fifty percent of those lacking quality health insurance, sixty percent of premature deaths, forty percent of infectious diseases, fifty percent of the nation’s child poverty; and ranks first among the four regions of the U.S. in the percentage of medically disenfranchised persons.
“Unfortunately I believe this administration is not giving this epidemic in the South it needs based upon the fact that it is mostly filled with those who are impoverished”, said Ms. McCann. “Out of poverty comes disempowerment and because those rural citizens don’t have political clout, they have no voice. It’s not fair but it’s the truth.”