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Mississippi’s Minorities Disproportionately Affected by HIV/AIDS

By Daniel Cherry | Published 15 Jun 2011 09:10am | comments

It's been thirty years since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported the first case of AIDS in the United States. Since then more than 25 million people have died from the disease worldwide. In Mississippi more than 9 thousand people are currently infected with HIV/AIDS. MPB's Daniel Cherry reports last year minorities in Mississippi accounted for nearly 90 percent of all new sexually transmitted disease infections...that makes HIV and AIDS still a very real threat.

At 19 years old Howard Gilliam went to jail for a sex crime he says he didn't commit. When he was released he had no job, no money, and no family to help out. He ended up homeless, developed a drug addition, and became a male prostitute.

"Rather than be in a homeless shelter I can go outside on the block and make $100 and go get a hotel room."

Last year Gilliam was diagnosed HIV positive. He's one of thousands living with the disease in the state. But in Mississippi African American men are four times more likely to contract the disease than white men. African American women are eight and a half times more likely to develop the virus than white women. Many of those infected say they are treated like outcasts, but not Gilliam.

"I'm not scared of stigma. I don't believe in stigma. I think stigma is a mental thing. I walk into the grocery store and say, 'Hey how y'all doing? My name is Howard and I made a mistake and caught HIV. Please don't catch it.' So I haven't felt the effects everybody body else says when they tell somebody they've got HIV they're going to be scorned."

At a recent protest outside the state capitol, Aids Action in Mississippi voiced its concerns over what they say is a lack of attention from the state government. Dr. Nicholas Mosca heads up the STD/HIV program at the Mississippi Department of Health.

"We can actually reduce the rates by monogamy, abstinence, getting to know your sexual partners, and the correct and consistent use of condoms. So that's our core message to the community."

Mosca says his department recognizes the disproportionate number of African Americans affected by HIV disease. Mosca says he can't offer an explanation why, but he says the department of health will continue its main focus of educating the public about sexual health issues.

"The health department is doing a good job."

Says Luke Versher. An anti-AIDS activist with AIDS Action in Mississippi.

"But the state is not behind them enough. The state did an excellent job with tobacco and obesity. That's the same kind of campaign they need to do. An anti stigma campaign. "

People at greatest risk of HIV infection are generally those who engage in risky sexual behaviors and live in communities where HIV prevalence is high. Sandra Stringfellow is from Greenwood. She says lack of education and misinformation is still prevalent especially in minority communities.

"This is an unknown to a lot of people. They've heard about it. They're familiar with the words, but they don't know what it is. If they're educated people are more comfortable talking about it. You'll hear some people say, 'If I'm positive I don't want to know. I want to die of just dying of it', and then some people say, 'I'm going to take somebody with me. Somebody took me.' If I had been educated I wouldn't be positive."

Stringfellow is encouraging people to have open dialogue about HIV and AIDS. She says many people still think HIV only affects homosexuals or they just refuse to talk about it altogether.

"The thing that has us just locked down is the mentality of Mississippi. People will talk about 'My son is on meth', but they're not going to say, 'My son is positive.' They're just beginning to accept, 'My son is gay.' Everything is a step process, but in order to stop it, we've got to get the kids."

Currently, Mississippi has several organizations receiving public funds that provide HIV testing, counseling, and referral services. However, anti aids activists believe Mississippi will remain in the top ten when it comes to the rate of new HIV infections------unless a new strategy and a new approach to curbing the spread of the disease is found. According to the department of health Mississippi already has more than 200 new cases this year....66 more than this time last year.

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