The Southeast has a crisis on our hands. Half of all new HIV diagnoses are in the South, and 44 percent of people living with HIV reside in the South.
Georgia, in particular, ranks the second-highest for new HIV infections.
Condoms and safer sex practices are just part of the equation. There is still a lot of stigma tied to the disease, and the ability to access information and care before and after being exposed is challenging.
Gay and bisexual men — particularly Black and Latinx folks — are facing some of the highest risk. A recent CDC study determined that, if nothing changes, half of these black men and one in four gay and bisexual Latinos will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.
“As alarming as these lifetime risk estimates are, they are not a foregone conclusion. They are a call to action,” Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, said in press release.
Just last month, the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS announced new recommendations for reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Atlanta.
But that’s just for Atlanta.
Georgia, along with our Southern neighbors, need to comprehensively address the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Task Force’s recommendations point to the fact that contracting and managing HIV, like so many healthcare challenges, sits at a complicated intersection of factors. Food security affects your ability to take meds; access to reliable transportation is needed to get to and from regular doctor’s visits; mental health and substance use disorders complicate receiving care.
One thing that is disheartening about the prevalence of HIV and AIDS among black gay and bisexual men is that they don’t engage in riskier behaviors than their white counterparts. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that they have fewer partners and use condoms more.
This speaks to how racism works in this country — even when black men are doing everything “right,” they still face increased risk. This means addressing HIV prevalence isn’t as simple as handing out more free condoms, the racist structures in place that prevent black men from receiving adequate care in the first place must be addressed.
“There’s so much easy blame: ‘Those people shouldn’t be doing those things.’ And that is not the situation at all. It is that it is such a prevalent disease in our population for a group of patients who don’t have easy access to care,” Wendy Armstrong, medical director of the Ponce de Leon Center, said in a recent interview with PBS.
This growing crisis is not just present in Georgia’s queer communities. One of the other contributing factors to the prevalence of HIV in the South is heroin use. Atlanta’s wealthy, white suburbs — John’s Creek, Alpharetta, Marietta — have been at the epicenter of heroin use, as recently reported by WXIA, and sharing needles is one way HIV and Hepatitis C are transmitted.
Now is no time to let stigma and morality policing — around sexual orientation, drug use, poverty and any other number of factors — get in the way of dealing with HIV and AIDS in our state.
HIV is no longer a death sentence — the right medications and a healthy lifestyle can keep the disease suppressed for a lifetime. But, combatting the spread of HIV and AIDS in our communities is going to require a real commitment from policymakers and leaders. Are they up for it?