"It's something you don't want to know," Ken South said, "but you need to know."
The subject is AIDS and HIV testing, and South, WJTV News Channel 12 meteorologist, is the HeARTS Against AIDS benefit chairman. "You could get sick, and feel like you have the flu and get over it, and never think about it again," South said. But without getting an HIV test, a person could be infected and not know it.
"At some point, because of the way the virus travels, it will infect everybody that has unprotected sex. Period," said Craig Thompson, director of the STD/HIV Bureau at the Mississippi Department of Health.
The words strike fear in many hearts: AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome; and HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, which causes the syndrome. In the 26 years since the Centers for Disease Control identified the syndrome, millions have died from the myriad of opportunistic infections and diseases that ravage bodies with depleted immune systems; they have no power to fight them. Every country in the world has been affected.
Today, some 9,000 people live with AIDS in Mississippi, only about half of whom receive care. More than 3,000 have died.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that many more are infected; 25 percent of the 1.3 million infected in the U.S. don't know they have the virus, and 46,000 new infections occurred last year alone. And, although most infected people are able to live relatively normal lives with the help of expensive pharmaceuticals, there is no cure and no vaccine.
Early on, the medical community thought the disease was the exclusive purview of gay men, but it didn't take long to discover the virus was an equal opportunity infector. HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. Infections occur through contaminated blood transfusions, sharing needles with infected blood, and transmitted to children in the womb and through breast feeding. But the way most people get it is by having unprotected sex.
"There's no such thing as safe sex," Thompson said. "But there is safer sex."
Safer sex means using condoms, for both men and women. Condoms are the only measure proven to reduce incidences of new infections for sexually active people. The other option is abstinence, but it is unrealistic to believe everyone will remain abstinent and in exclusive relationships their entire lives.
Since 1993, HeARTS Against AIDS has become the largest non-governmental benefactor in the state to organizations active in AIDS awareness and education, and those supporting AIDS sufferers in Mississippi.
The all-volunteer non-profit has raised more than $750,000 through their annual benefit since its inception in 1993, and has provided funds through grants to organizations such as the Mississippi Episcopal AIDS Committee, Grace House and Building Bridges, which are all located in Jackson, as well as others outside the metro area.
"In our conservative society, it just isn't talked about a lot," South said. "Awareness and education get people more comfortable with it, talking with each other about it, talking to their doctors. … The medicines (introduced since) 1996 made it a manageable disease that people don't think you die of any more," South added. "But they're wrong."
Mississippi artists are an integral part of the HeARTS mission, and every year, their auctioned donations make up the major portion of the funds raised. Artists who faithfully donate their work each year include Lea Barton, Anthony DiFatta, William Dunlap, Lucy Mazzaferro and H.C. Porter. Artists donate paintings, jewelry, photography, sculpture, jewelry and pottery, and South said they would be accepting donations until the last possible moment, expecting more than 300 pieces for the live and silent auctions.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated cartoonist Marshall Ramsey contributed the art featured on this year's T-shirt and other publicity materials, and local restaurants will contribute food for the benefit. Scott Albert Johnson, Sherman Lee Dillon, Scott Anderson, James Jenkins, Eric Stracener and John Hawkins will provide music. South hopes to better last year's tally of $65,000 at this year's benefit.
South echoes the frustration of many in the field of AIDS awareness over U.S. administrations' handling of the pandemic since Ronald Reagan was in office. "If you understand that educating kids in high school and getting information out there—awareness—protect people from getting (AIDS) and becoming a public health crisis, why wouldn't you do that?" South asked.
The 16th annual HeARTS Against AIDS benefit starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, at Hal & Mal's, 200 S. Commerce St. Tickets are $30, or $15 for students with valid ID. To donate or get more information, contact Ken South at 601-366-9084, or go to http://www.mississippihearts.org.
I didn't know Ken South was the chairman. Did you know he's a JSU alum?