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Pt .2 of a 3 Pt. Series on Mississippi’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 05 May 2014 11:46pm | comments

More than 10,000 Mississippian's are currently diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. According to the Mississippi Department of Health African Americans make up more than three fourths of new HIV cases. Young Black men are particularly hard hit.  In part 2 of our 3 part series MPB's Lawayne Childrey examines what life is like for those living with the disease and the stigma attached to it.

At Open Arms Clinic in Jackson nearly a dozen men are sitting in a cozy waiting room that looks more like a man cave. The room is filled with bright colors,  comfortable chairs and two large plasma TV's hanging on the walls. J.D. Nuttall says it’s the perfect setting for HIV positive men to openly express their feelings in a secure environment. In fact he says this support group which goes by the name My Brother’s Keeper has become a family for him.

"Because before I really had no one to talk to. And now when I come to meet with these guys we talk about any conditions that are  going on with us. Especially being an MSM group men that have sex with men. We tend to not wanna talk out if there's women around. But if there are all men we talk about things that are going on with us. I mean we go on trips together, we call each other periodically, check on each other. So we're like a family now and I never had that before."

J.D. says with his new found family he feels free to discuss events that have significantly impacted his life. One of which  is how he found out he was HIV positive prior to an emergency surgery to remove a painful ulcer.

"And I was not actually asked to be tested, I was asked if I was positive. And at the time I didn't know I was so I told them no because I didn't know I was. So I was actually tested without knowing. But when I went to the surgery that following Monday I was told in a room by myself that I was positive and someone would be in to talk to me later. And that was alone without family, without any support just alone in a chair.'

J.D.  says finding out that he was HIV positive came as a complete surprise and he agonized over how he would share the news with his family.

"Well once I went home I told my Mom about it and she actually dropped to the floor and I told her you know if you’re not gonna be strong I can’t be strong so we have to be strong for each other. But she never treated me any differently, She took care of me until I got healthy enough to get on my own. My mom and one of my sisters went to one of my initial doctors’ visits after my diagnosis and she actually helped me get back on my feet."

Cedric Sturdevant was diagnosed with AIDS nearly 10 years ago. On this day he facilitates an HIV support group.   Sturdevant says even though the disease has caused him a number of stumbles it has also helped him to find what he calls his true purpose in life.

"To show men, men of color especially that you can live with HIV and still have a successful life. You do right by taking your medication. If you are sexually active you use protection like you should. And just enjoy your life still. Still go on."

While new drug therapies are helping people to live longer, healthier more prosperous lives Sturdevant says people living with the disease are still being stigmatized.

I was talking to a young man and he said man I believe that man got AIDS. At this point the young man didn't know I was living with  AIDS myself.  And he said I believe that man got AIDS man I ain't gone smoke no cigarette behind him. So I had to educate him about that. You know you can’t contract HIV or AIDS from smoking a cigarette behind this young man. And I think that lack of that education, causing a lot of the stigma going around in Mississippi today."

The stigma against people with HIV is one Jackson Mayor, Tony, Yarber knows well. Yarber says when he was only 13 years old he watched his 27 year old sister die in silence from with the disease instead of seeking treatment.

"She told my mama, she told my daddy but she didn't have the opportunity to come out of those shadows. She suffered a stroke as a result of some complications as well. And she would not allow herself to come out of those shadows for fear of what people would say. Or what kinds of things it would bring on the family."

Yarber say even though his sister tried to protect her family, they too fell victim to the stigma of AIDS because of the lack of knowledge of other family members and friends

"They didn't know that they couldn't get HIV from me or my younger sister. They thought that we had it because my older sister had it.  And that struggle in of itself just having to deal with people and how people will try to put you in a box and place a label on you."

Just as the stigma associated with AIDS caused Yarber's sister to not seek treatment, State Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs says that same stigma continues to keep many patients hiding in the shadows away from treatment.

"If people are stigmatized they are ashamed. Someone said the other day, the shame is in the secret. And I think that's true. If people feel empowered to be tested, empowered to protect themselves, empowered to go to family members so they can talk about what's going on.  It really reinforces that support network that can help people get tested, that can help people get treated, that can help people live healthier lifestyles. It really is an oppressive force that can stop people from getting the help they need."

Mississippi  ranks 7th in the nation for the number of new HIV/AIDS cases. Tomorrow we will hear from church leaders in the Black community who have issued a call to action to help fight the spread of the disease. Lawayne Childrey, MPB News.  

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