Friday, June 7, 2013
Being diagnosed with HIV is no longer the life sentence it was once was. But for those living with the virus in Mississippi, having HIV/AIDS remains a terrible curse, said Othor Cain, chairman of the board of directors at Grace House in Jackson.
Cain delivered sort of a state-of-the-state on HIV/AIDS this morning at Koinonia Coffee House's Friday Forum. Citing information from the Mississippi Department of Health, Cain said 10,254 Mississippians now live with HIV infections, regardless of the stage of the disease (meaning the number includes people with AIDS). Of that number, 25 percent live in Hinds County. Jackson has the fourth highest HIV-infection rate of all U.S. metropolitan areas, and black men are the only group to experience an increase in infection rates in the past five years.
"These numbers are startling," Cain added. "Thousands of Mississippians are at risk for HIV, and many who are infected are denied live-saving measures and treatments because of counter-productive state laws."
A 2011 report from New York City-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch amplifies Cain. The report states: "Numerous legal provisions, including constitutional amendments, discriminate against homosexuals, and state sex-education laws marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. In Mississippi, the criminal law penalizes those with HIV for failing to disclose their positive status, an approach that public-health experts deem likely to undermine, rather than promote, the public health."
Specifically, the report notes Mississippi's sex-education policies contribute to one of the nation's highest rates of sexually transmitted disease and teen births in the nation.
"The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the southern U.S. has been particularly devastating for minority communities," states the report. "Nowhere is the dramatic racial impact of the epidemic more apparent than in the state of Mississippi, where African-Americans are only 37.5 percent of the population, but comprise 76 percent of those newly infected with HIV. Mississippi's failure to embrace evidence-based approaches in the face of increasing health threats to minority populations conflicts with fundamental principles of human rights."
One of the rights people with HIV/AIDS are often denied is housing. Grace House operates a transitional living facility for 19 people and has a waiting list of 35. The organization, located in midtown Jackson, also has seven permanent residents.
People with HIV/AIDS who find it difficult to obtain or keep housing or employment because of their status are getting some help through a joint program of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi State Department of Health's Crossroads Clinics Central and Jackson Medical Mall Foundation. The program provides legal help related to HIV-status housing and employment discrimination.
In the meantime, Cain said he and other activists are pressing Mississippi lawmakers for HIV-AIDS funding. All of Grace House's funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and private foundations; the state provides no funds, Cain said.
To date, HIV/AIDS advocates who lobby the Legislature have not been able to get a bill out of committee.
"People are afraid," Cain said of lawmakers.