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Pt.1 of a 3 Pt. Series on Mississippi’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 05 May 2014 03:47am | comments

Mississippi ranks 7th in the nation for the number of new HIV/AIDS cases. Currently more than 10.000 people in the state are diagnosed with the disease, the majority of those are African American. In part one of a three part series,  MPB's Lawayne Childrey takes an in-depth look at the growing  epidemic and what's being done to combat it..

Over the past year,  more than 550 new HIV infections have been reported in Mississippi. State epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs says the majority of those cases are African American Men who have sex with Men and choose to live their lives in secrecy.

"And unfortunately there are a lot out there. Not only are they fearful of disclosing that they're MSM, Men who have Sex with Men because of the stigma associated with that which is pretty profound in many aspects of the black community. But also to they don't realize the risks of getting HIV. We know that in the lifetime of a gay black man with the current trends, about 40 percent will have HIV in their lifetime. And that's just astounding and that's way too much."

Dobbs says the reason for the high numbers of HIV infection in Mississippi's African American community  seems to be due to the cavalier attitude towards safe sex practices including condom use and testing for the virus.  Two years ago, 29 year old Marcus McPherson,  a graduate student at Jackson State University decided to go against the status quo. 

"I didn't have any type of symptoms or anything. I just decided on my 27th birthday, to just  go down to the clinic and I just told them I have not had a test for STD's and HIV in a  while so I want to get tested.

After his 20 minute test was completed,  McPherson who is gay, says he receive the shock of his life when he was told he had HIV,  the virus that causes AIDS.

"I didn't receive it at first. I know the nurse said it and I think it took me driving home and that's when it hit me.  I just broke down crying, I couldn't drive anymore. I just had to pull over to the side of the road and just think about what the nurse just told me.  I had this mindset that I went into the clinic healthy and then I came out with something that could possibly kill me."

Unfortunately, McPherson is part of an alarming number of African American men who are being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Mississippi.  The problem is so pervasive in the state that Jackson ranks 3rd in the nation for the number of new HIV infections among black men who have sex with men. McPherson believes lack of education is playing a huge role in those statistics.

"I know a lot of the first movies that came out in the early 90's were about white men that died from complications of AIDS. Even I think they had the movie that just came out this past year, Dallas Buyers Club, about this white guy that was living with the AIDS. So I was like there are really no brown skinned people to represent the  epidemic. And a lot of time when we're not shown we don’t register it."

State Epidemiologist, Dr. Thomas Dobbs says while blacks and whites engage in many of the same sexual practices the real tragedy is that many people in the black community are living with HIV but don't know they are infected.

"One of the main reasons why there is so much transmission in the African American community is because people are not diagnosed. And if people are not diagnosed then they are more likely to transmit it to their sexual contacts."

While HIV is spread primarily through sexual contact, Dobbs says it is extremely preventable.

"Either through the use of condoms or other preventive measures. But simply by diagnosing someone with HIV we know that they engage in less risky behaviors. HIV is not something that can be spread by casual contact but if you treat somebody for HIV with the HIV med's not only do they live a long and pretty healthy life but they're much less likely to transmit it in the community."

"There are a lot of ideas on why we continue to become infected."

That's Dr. June Gipson, Executive Director of Open Arms Clinic in Jackson.  She says while the solution to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS  may seem simple it still remains a daunting task.

"Now you can say I need to wear condoms or I need to have safe sex. Or I need to be monogamous  or I need to be married. But what if I'm hungry, what if I have children? What if I'm attempting to take care of them and this is the boyfriend I have? This is the circumstance that I live in. This is what's been given to me. It's hard to overcome the obstacles in life to always protect yourself from becoming infected when there are so many countering things."

Gipson believes one of the main reasons so many Mississippian's continue to become infected is steeped in the state’s high rates of poverty.

"Sex is fun and when so many things are taken away from you, now you wanna take this too? You wanna take the fun that's associated with sex, the spontaneity, me loving someone, me being free with it when I've lost everything else? And it’s hard for people to do that. I mean it's hard for people who have money to do it. So Imagine when you are impoverished."

That's why JSU student, Marcus McPherson says he has committed himself to educating others.

"I never thought that I would be HIV positive. So I think if we just open up a dialog, if we started talking about it more and stop trying to blame others. But start taking personal responsibility in saying hey we need to stop this one person at a time. We need to make sure that everyone that we know is going to get tested. We need to make sure that everyone is using condoms and those types of things."

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, African Americans make up about 37 percent of the state’s population. However, blacks account for more than three fourths of new HIV cases.  Exactly what is fueling the disconnect? Tomorrow we will try to answer that question by examining the impact stigma has on the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Lawayne Childrey, MPB News. 

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