The South exists with a mixture of poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and health insurance. It has long been a hotbed for high HIV diagnosis rates. Atlanta, Georgia is being called the epicenter of the epidemic that is being compared to levels seen in 3rd world countries. Among 28 large urban areas studied, Atlanta’s HIV diagnosis rates were the second highest, behind only Washington, D.C. The region’s rate is also five times higher than the national average, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
The national average is 8 AIDS cases per 100,000 people. The rate in Atlanta and Fulton County is 30.4, with Washington, D.C. at 48.9. Atlanta’s HIV-related mortality rate is nearly four times the national average and the second-highest of cities included in the study. Atlanta’s rate is 8.1 per 100,000 people, compared to a U.S. average of 2.1. Long Beach, Calif., ranked highest with a rate of 16.7 HIV-related deaths per 100,000 people. The rate of people living with HIV/AIDS in Atlanta and Fulton is 1,613.3 per 100,000 people – nearly six times the national rate of 295.1. That’s third behind Washington, D.C. (2,714) and San Francisco (1,903.4).
People from all walks of life are able to contract this illness. Whether you are black, white, straight, or gay- you can contract HIV. In particular, young black men without healthcare are the most affected in the Atlanta area.
The new Public Health Director in Fulton County has issued a call for the mobile HIV testing unit to appear in “hot zones”, areas with high rates of new infections, to begin free testing on people.
A study from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports gay black and Latin men are at strikingly higher risk to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime than white men who have sex with men. Among men who have sex with men, 1 in 2 black men and 1 in 4 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV during their life – compared to 1 in 11 for white men who have sex with men, according to the analysis. Overall, 1 in 6 men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in the lifetime.
Stigma is perceived as a major limiting factor in primary and secondary HIV prevention. It has interfered with voluntary testing and counseling, and access to care and treatments. After contracting the illness, AIDS stigma becomes yet another life obstacle in the path of many of the very people who are already faced with social and economic obstacles. Combating stigma remains an important task for social workers around the globe.
Concerns about stigma affect an individual’s decision to get tested, access health care, and withhold information about their status from family members, friends, and care providers. This level of concern leads people to be living with HIV/AIDS without knowing their status. Which is partly responsible for the epidemics in DC and the Southern U.S.
“Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action”, said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2008, “It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have HIV, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.”
It is noted that stigma also isolates families. It can discourage households from registering affected children in national support programs, and further limits access to information, prevention, care, and treatment. Globally, support for adults and children affected by the epidemic are provided by underfinanced civil society groups, with limited government support. This results in gaps in funding and services, as well as discrimination in laws and/or policy. Part of the blame for the Southern HIV Epidemic stems from a lack of education from sources such as the Fulton County HIV Prevention Program which has been found to have misused or simply not spent free money given them by the CDC to educate the public on HIV.
All this being said, there is hope on the horizon for people living with the disease. Recently, the HIV research community has become increasingly optimistic about the promising “shock and kill” approach to eradicating HIV diagnosis rates altogether. Such removal of all traces of the virus from an individual’s body would represent an actual cure for AIDS.
A new small-scale human trial of the treatment has started in New York and two sister sites, in Germany and Denmark. The trial will combine an anti-cancer drug, romidepsin, with antiretroviral drugs, also known as ARVs. Another small human study will start in January, followed by a larger human shock and kill trial in June.
“Shock and kill” requires combining standard ARVs with an immune booster, a combo that’s been effective in test tubes, animal, and now human trials. The treatment flushes out and eradicates pockets of HIV, which lie inactive inside dormant immune cells even as antiretroviral drugs reduce the actively reproducing virus to undetectable levels in the blood.
Regardless of the possibly inevitable future with HIV diagnosis rates of zero, we are faced with the responsibility to educate ourselves and talk with our loved ones in order to ensure we are all doing our part to combat this illness. Through conversations, sharing news articles on social media, getting tested with friends, and speaking up after having been diagnosed, we can actively work together at erasing HIV diagnosis rates and curing those who are living with, but not dying from the disease.