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Southern Discomfort: The Unspoken HIV/AIDS Crisis Among Black Americans

by Jill Gleeson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Feb 7, 2018

Daniel Driffin is young and cute, a serious, but not somber, African American man in a blue pinstripe shirt. The first words out of his mouth are, "I found out I was living with HIV right after college ... " Thus begins the latest in amfAR's (The Foundation for AIDS Research) online series Epic Voices. According to the organization, the videos, which debuted last year, seek to "reenergize the response to HIV among Millennial and LGBT communities ... to renew awareness of the persistent threat of HIV, the urgent need to support HIV research, and amfAR's leadership in the search for a cure."

In some ways, the need for amfAR's campaign is a result of the advances made in successfully treating HIV. Medications can now keep the virus in check for years, but, as the organization notes, this progress "has greatly diminished the perception that HIV is a serious health concern, and has led to widespread complacency. Yet treatment remains challenging - less than a third of people living with HIV are virally suppressed - and HIV-related stigma is still widespread."

The Hot Zone

Driffin's video, released in honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7, addresses one of the most troubling trends in the fight against the disease: the staggering rates of infection for gay and bisexual African American men, particularly in the South.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans comprised 44 percent of new HIV cases in 2016. Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention told the New York Times that "It's deeply troubling when 50 percent of African American gay men are expected to get HIV during their lifetime, but it's also been a clarion call for all of us to improve on what we're doing."

The crisis is worst below the Mason-Dixon line, where 21 of the 25 cities with the highest HIV rates among gay and bisexual men are located. Duke University recently issued findings that the death rate from HIV-related causes in 2014 was seven times higher for black men in the Deep South than anywhere else in the country.

As Driffin, who co-founded Thrive SS, an Atlanta-based organization, which provides support to same-gender-loving men living with HIV, says in his video, "I recently just completed a trip to San Francisco. I had the opportunity of walking through the Tenderloin and walking through the Mission and down to the Castro ... we lost a generation ... the same thing is happening in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, in South Carolina and the Deep South. People who are younger, who are black, who are gay, who are trans, are still dying with HIV and it's a conversation that no one is having."

The Perfect Storm

Greg Millett, vice president of public policy at amfAR, believes there are a number of factors contributing to the increased risk gay and bisexual southern black men face concerning HIV/AIDS, including the large percentage of men in the demographic already infected.

"There are so many of us that are HIV-positive, and so many of us who don't know that we're HIV-positive," Millett explains. "If you have one slip-up in a community where many people are HIV-positive you're more likely to get HIV, compared to people in communities where fewer are HIV-positive. Quite frankly, they can have many more slip-ups and never get HIV. So it's different because the prevalence is so high in our community."

"The other issue that I think is unique to the South," Millett continues, "is that HIV rates are concentrated in suburban and rural areas, whereas in other parts of the U.S. it's primarily urban and some suburban areas. It's that rural issue in the South, where people don't have access to providers in their area, or to transportation. Even you do have access to a provider in your area, HIV is still so stigmatized in this country that you don't necessarily want to go see a doctor who probably grew up with your mom and dad, get tested for HIV and find out that you're positive."

With rates of HIV infection among same gender loving black men potentially set to skyrocket as the country's healthcare system continues to fracture, initiatives like Epic Voices are even more crucial. As Driffin says in his video, "We need everybody, no one is less important in the creation of our healthiest communities."

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.


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