The fact remains: There are still many stigmas around HIV/AIDS which are critical barriers to preventing the disease from spreading. In a city like Baton Rouge where new HIV diagnoses register as some of the highest in the nation, prevention is critical to stopping the disease and saving lives, said Tim Young, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two Inc., or HAART.
When HAART opened its doors more than 20 years ago, the organization could only hope to save the lives of residents who were HIV positive. Now, people are living longer—and in many cases— living healthier with the virus that causes AIDS.
“It’s been an uphill challenge from the beginning,” said Young.
A large percentage of that battle has stemmed from stigmas people hold about the disease, said Eugene Collins, director of prevention for HAART.
According to Collins, minimizing and eliminating stigmas can contribute to slowing the spread of HIV. Once sex is discussed in non-condemning manners, behaviors and practices that put people at risk can be talked about and addressed. In Baton Rouge, a large population of new diagnosis are men who have sex with men. This behavior may be open or in secret. “Needle sharing now has a lower impact” said Collins who said it’s important to have conversations “around the dinner table” about safe sex practices just like the nation has done around needle use. These conversations aren’t happening, he said, because families still do not want to address homosexuality, premarital sex, or promiscuity. “The attitude is that these behaviors are wrong so the risks around them aren’t talked about in homes or schools or churches,” Collins said.
A March 2018 report from the Louisiana Department of Health showed 4,080 people living with HIV in Baton Rouge.
“This is an epidemic,” said State Rep. Kenny Cox, (D-Natchitoches) earlier this year during the legislative session, “HIV/AIDS destroys families, homes, communities.”
“As a nation and a community, many of us have been quick to judge those with HIV, saying their infection was some kind of retribution for certain behavior. But, we don’t say people with other kinds of viruses, a common cold for example, deserved their illness,” said Young.
“We shun the things we fear, and in the beginning, there was a lot to fear from HIV. At first, scientists weren’t even able to prove it was transmitted sexually. That’s why we employ people with HIV when we can, and train all of our employees on how they can’t acquire or transmit HIV to or from our patients or others.”
“As a community, we should reduce stigma around HIV. Without education, we may fear someone with HIV. Without that stigma, those who are undiagnosed would be less fearful about learning they may test positive and how others around them may react to that news. We harm our community when we create fear in people which prevents them from being tested and accessing treatment,” Young said.
Collins insists that these discussions cannot only lead to prevention but can also lead people to primary care at younger ages. Because HAART has established an extensive referral system, residents can be connected to a network of service providers to get support. And, if testing shows that the person is HIV-positive, HAART refers them to a provider and secures medical treatment at its Baton Rouge facility, Open Health Care Clinic at 3901 North Blvd.
“Open Health Care Clinic believes that addressing adolescent healthcare needs is essential to promoting healthier behaviors into adulthood, thereby bridging the gap between pediatric and adult primary care,” stated Lori Lauve, Open Health’s director of development.
Open Health is a federally qualified health center which provides provide advanced medical services for every phase of a person’s life regardless of their financial or insurance status, Lauve stated in a news release. The services include pediatrics, dental, behavioral health, infectious diseases, preventive care, and endocrinology. It has extended hours, and is open for weekend appointments and walk-ins.
The clinic provides primary care services to the entire Baton Rouge community with special care for people who are HIV-positive or who have been diagnosed with AIDS. “It’s whole care for the whole community,” said Young.
He and Collins agree that community education and frank discussions about sexual behaviors are key to decreasing stigmas around HIV/AIDS and ultimately preventing the spread of the disease. Another tool for prevention is a medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). It is known by its brand name Truvada and can prevent people who are at high risk of contracting HIV from getting infected. PrEP assistance is provided at Open Health, HAART, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Baton Rouge Black Alcoholism Council, CareSouth, Planned Parenthood, and Emerging Care of Louisiana. They also provide free HIV testing.
Advances in prevention and treatment are bringing us closer to ending HIV, said Young. “I foresee a future when (Baton Rouge) finally has zero HIV transmissions reported in a year. That will be something for all of us to celebrate.”
By Candace j Semien
Jozef Syndicate reporter