South Louisiana’s Invisible Epidemic

 

HIV/AIDS cases in S.E. Louisiana remain among highest in the nation

Louisiana has long sat at the bottom of statistics for things like overall well-being and education. But, in 2012, Baton Rougeans found themselves, unfortunately, at the top of one of the least ideal statistics in the country. The city was named number one for AIDS cases per capita, with New Orleans following in second.

In Baton Rouge, there are nearly 5000 diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS.

Overall, HIV continues to disproportionately affect Blacks in Louisiana. As shown in a 2007 survey, 72% of newly diagnosed HIV cases and 75% of newly diagnosed AIDS cases were among African Americans.

This year, The Baton Rouge AIDS Society revealed that the capital city now ranks 4th for AIDS case rates among the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, and leads Louisiana in the highest rate of AIDS cases overall. Of these numbers, 31% of new HIV cases and 31% of new AIDS cases in Louisiana are among women – with the number one mode of transmission being heterosexual activities.

Dr. Joyce Turner Keller is one of those women.

Keller was diagnosed in 2001 following a car accident, in which she developed a staph infection, requiring medical treatment. She said she believes she contracted the virus in 1995 when she was raped at age 45.

“I tell people all the time that it doesn’t matter how I got it,” Keller said. “The fact is that I deal with the same side effects, the same discrimination, the same ills and the same rejection that everybody else deals with when they’re dealing with HIV.”

 

Keller is a Baton Rouge area bishop. She is also the founder of Aspirations, a non-profit organization serving the needs of hurting people, regardless of race, creed, gender preference, age or social class, infected with or affected by the HIV/AIDS virus. Part of her influence to head up the organization came from an encounter with a pastor, who she said told her matter-of-factly “there’s no AIDS in my church.” Upon disagreeing with the pastor’s statement, Keller reflected on her own past ignorance of the virus.

 

“I didn’t think that HIV had anything to do with me before being diagnosed,” Keller said. “I’m a praying woman; I’m a woman of the church; I’m a woman in the ministry; I didn’t smoke; I didn’t drink; I didn’t party and I’ve never been high. I wasn’t into commercial sex; I wasn’t a stripper; I wasn’t gay; I wasn’t white; I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends. So, to me, before I was diagnosed, HIV was a foreign word – it was somebody else.”

 

This fall Keller produced a play based upon her encounter with the aforementioned pastor, titled “No AIDS in my Church”.  She said the mission was to make audiences think about the reality of ministers believing that AIDS doesn’t exist in the church and to emphasis that the virus is has many faces.

 

“I think it’s imperative that people see HIV looks like them – that every face is the face of HIV,” Keller said. “No matter how many times you look at me, you can’t see HIV, unless I tell it.”

 

Now, living a mildly healthy life since her diagnosis, Keller said she takes one pill specifically for HIV and a host of other medications for accompanying ailments. But, most importantly, Keller said she lives right.

 

“I eat right, I get plenty of rest and I refuse to get stressed out,” Keller said. “I don’t let other people’s problems become mine. I limit my involvement with outside interference. I don’t allow junk into my spiritual or mental needs – that’s how I stay healthy – that keeps you well.”

 

Staying healthy is something that Patrice Melnick knows well. A resident of Grand Coteau, La., she has been living with HIV for nearly 30 years. She was diagnosed at age 26 in 1987, during an emergency medical trip home from Bangassou in the C.A.R, where she served in the Peace Corps for two years. She said she believes she contracted the virus from one of her boyfriends who was native to Africa.

 

In 2012, her memoir, Po-Boy Contraband – From Diagnosis Back to Life was published.

 

“Writers are looking for a kind of breakthrough,” Melnick said. “I was often writing about other cultures, African, Native American. When one does this, you get into tricky territory, and can be accused of exploitation, though no one ever accused me. Then it occurred to me, I could exploit myself, and my own story with this taboo topic. Writers can be a little warped. In life, sometimes I remove myself from a situation and stop thinking about how the struggle or distress makes me feel and start considering what a provocative story I have to work with.”

 

Melnick explained that for many years she felt invisible by not revealing her status to those around her. At the time that she was diagnosed, the disease was almost exclusively associated with gay men and most people who were not gay men assumed they could not get it. She said the stigma was much like that of an individual living outside of a crime ridden area and believing that he/she is immune to criminal activity.

 

Melnick said she didn’t believe herself to be at high-risk for HIV.

 

Practicing sex only safe enough to prevent birth, Melnick actively took her birth control pills. This was due to the lack of HIV/AIDS awareness and education in the 1980’s. It was the type of ignorance that made Melnick believe that she was a bad person for contracting the virus.

 

“Americans, especially religious Americans, like to believe there is a reason for everything,” Melnick said. “Because of taboos about sex, they associate STDs with blame. I think I accepted this at first. But then I thought of things in a broader perspective—most healthy humans are sexually active with great inconsistency regarding use of prophylactics, and it’s not useful to dwell on illusions of blame, guilt and innocence.”

 

More than just general response to the virus, other things have changed as well with education and research. Melnick’s once 7 pills daily is now just two pills daily. She said she stays healthy through exercise, balanced diet, quiet time, regular doctor visits and annual check-ups.

 

“Initially, I believed I had no hope and I was quick to accept those who believed I did not have long to live,” Melnick said. “In truth, I did not expect to live long.  At first I made short term plans.  Then, nothing happened, so I made longer term plans.  Now here I am concerned about keeping health and life insurance, and retirement.”

 

Knowing that HIV is no longer a death sentence is something that International HIV/AIDS activist and humanitarian Hydeia Broadbent, of Nevada wants people to understand. She contracted HIV in the womb through her birth mother’s needle-injected drug addiction.

 

She developed full blown AIDS by age three.

 

Now 29-years-old, she travels the country in hopes of educating people about the virus. It’s something she has been known for since she was five-years-old.

 

“When I go around, I basically try to use my life, as a person living with full blown AIDS, as a cautionary tale, because HIV is 100% preventable,” Broadbent said. “I think a lot of people feel like if they contract HIV, they can take a pill and they’ll be okay. So, I try to go into what the reality of living with AIDS is truly like to encourage people to make wise choices like testing in relationships, practicing safe sex and taking care of their bodies.”

 

A typical day for Broadbent used to start with medications, but her insurance policy recently expired citing non renewal due to the Affordable Care Act. Her daily regimen for the past two months, since being dropped off her plan, includes lots of vitamins, exercise and a healthy diet. This is a routine she said she has always abided by, but more cautionary now because of being without medication.

 

The total price of her three medications is $3,400 monthly.

 

“I try not to stress about [the health insurance],” Broadbent said. “I wonder if I can afford the plans, I wonder if I can get back on a plan, just a lot of uncertainty right now.”

 

Broadbent said she was always public about her status, having spent much of childhood in the hospital with other HIV/AIDS infected children; she didn’t know she was different until middle school. Upon the realization that everybody didn’t have AIDS, she began her activism in the 1990’s when the still semi-taboo HIV/AIDS prevention had become popular through people like Ryan White and Magic Johnson.

 

It was then that Broadbent realized that while life may be more difficult with AIDS, it is no longer a death sentence.

 

“The most important thing is to know your status,” Broadbent said. “If you are HIV negative, do everything in your power to stay negative. If you’re positive, the first thing is to obtain and maintain healthcare. Then it’s just in general, being open with your sexual partner and talk to them about getting tested together and about your expectations in your relationship.”

 

ONLINE:www.hyediabroadbent.net

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