No matter how much we ignore it or deny the facts about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is relentless in its ability to keep its DNA replicating in a human host. June 27th is National HIV Testing Day! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that persons ages 13 - 64, living in the United States, get screened for HIV. After over 30 years of this fight against AIDS, countless loved ones are dead; countless others are living with the virus and there remains no cure. The treatment of this disease has advanced to a level where the life expectancy of young persons in their early twenties, living with HIV and adhering to a physician-guided treatment regimen, can possibly live well into their retirement years. The medical advances in HIV have given the blessing of life to so many in the world. Yet, these very advances have provided a distorted perception and myth, especially among young Americans, that HIV is no longer a life threatening disease and should not be feared.
Those of us who lived through the dark ages of AIDS in the 1980s and '90s don't talk much anymore about the loss, pain and grief that now flows through our arteries, embedded deep in the mitochondria of our own DNA. The faces and names of those who once laughed and danced with me -- and have been dead from AIDS too long already -- still live, lively in my heart and soul. My belief in ancestral divination allows me to be open to their presence and silent whispers of their own unearthly frustration regarding the ever mounting AIDS rates, stigma and unspoken deaths that continue in the United States. "Silence still equals Death," they loudly bolster from the other side.
The southern U.S. states, (AL, AK, DL, DC, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, OK, NC, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV), also known as the Bible Belt, is now totally consumed in AIDS darkness in 2013. According to the CDC, the South has the largest percentage of new HIV diagnoses and the largest percentage of people living with HIV of any region in the U.S. Forty-three percent (43 percent) of people who are HIV positive live in the southern U.S. while the South comprises only 37 percent of the population. In 2009, southern states accounted for 7 of the 10 states with the highest HIV prevalence rates in the U.S. African Americans are disproportionately represented among new HIV diagnoses in the South, as this group comprises 50 percent of men and 71 percent of women diagnosed with HIV. Nine of the ten states with the highest HIV fatality rates are southern states.
Seven years ago, I moved back home to the land of my birth -- the South! It appears that AIDS stigma and ignorance has won the day in the South. HIV prevention is unavailable in most school systems, homes and faith institutions. Many pastors still refuse to give a proper burial to those who die from AIDS; homosexuality is blamed for the existence of the disease; persons living with HIV, with no available funds for treatment, are on the "too bad" list. Teens and adults who are gay and/or HIV positive are often violently condemned within their communities; and HIV services are not always in walking distance with no available buses or subways to get you there!
I am a strong advocate for the solutions that will bring the AIDS epidemic to an end. The advancements in HIV testing, treatment, prevention interventions and social justice are allowing light to break through in many villages around the world, including in many town and communities in the U.S. This light that many of us see, and have worked so hard to witness, is the end of AIDS coming forth. I pray the old wise saying is true for HIV in the South, "the darkest hour is just before dawn." I pray the dawn is now!