(Editorial cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (July 25, 2012) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge and then kindly return.)
Journalist and documentary film-maker Lisa Biagiotti has a heart-breaking op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. There's an international AIDS/HIV conference being held in the US and most folks are busy congratulating each other on the fact that we finally seem to have a handle on this dread disease in terms of treatment, and some signs that we may have a vaccine in the pipes to prevent the infection to begin with.
Ms. Biagiotti reminds us that those congratulations just might be a little premature, especially in this country.
The South has the highest rate of AIDS deaths of any U.S. region. It also has the largest numbers of adolescents and adults living with HIV and the fewest resources to fight the epidemic.
The disease there is concentrated largely in poor minority communities. Diagnoses tend to be late and often only after the infection has progressed to AIDS. Treatment is less effective at that stage, and that's assuming it is even available. Thousands of those living with the human immunodeficiency virus are unable to get the medications they need, waiting in limbo for slots to open up in state AIDS drug assistance programs. President Obama recently pledged to eliminate these waiting lists, and I hope he does.
In Mississippi, the AIDS death rate is 60% higher than the national average, and about 50% of the people who know they are living with HIV are not receiving care, about the same percentage of nontreatment as in Ethiopia. [Emphasis added]
As if the racism and poverty aren't bad enough, those infected face the additional burden of homophobia from within their own family and culture.
I have spent time with and interviewed many black gay men living with HIV in the South, and they tend to tell similar stories. Their families have shamed and shunned them; their churches have condemned them. The schools they attended failed to provide even the most basic sex education.
The culture, they say, has forced them into hiding. Some marry; some have girlfriends. They try to be invisible in a culture that can accept black men as prisoners, drug dealers, gangsters, adulterers, absent fathers — but not as gay.
The underlying problems of stigma, discrimination and homophobia are palpable, and they exacerbate the crisis. One black pastor I filmed urged his flock to see HIV/AIDS as a punishment: "Some say that homosexuality is not a sin," he intoned. "It is. AIDS is God's curse to a homosexual life."
That's a rough road, one that needs to be addressed by all the smiling scientists and sociologists and politicians at that international meeting.
[Note: "deepsouth", Lisa Biagiotti's documentary on HIV in the South, premiered this week. More information on the film here]