It is Friday morning. The rain is slowing from an overnight storm. The streets are wet, and the air is humid and cold. The gray skies and wet chill are no deterrent for concerned citizens silently gathering at the Medical Mall in Jackson to bring attention to an epidemic in Mississippi that killsthe spread of HIV. The rate of new HIV cases in Mississippi is on the rise, and the Department of Health is not accurately and fairly addressing the epidemic.
The silent demonstration inside the monthly Community Planning Group meeting was organized, in part, from the Department of Health's refusal to apply for a portion of a $4 million national grant to be allocated among several organizations that could have helped prevent the spread of HIV in the African American male population of Mississippi.
People care. They see past the politics and know that inaction on the part of the Department of Health means that so many of the sons of Mississippi will die due to this horrific disease. They care enough to line the sidewalks on a cold, wet day to demand that the Department of Health prepare and implement a more effective strategy and for them to be accountable to protect public health and curb the spread of HIV in Mississippi. Their silent actions today speak volumes. They demand that the Department of Health, the system charged with protecting the public's health, take notice.
Men represent approximately 70 percent of all those infected with HIV in Mississippi, and African American men represent 75 percent of new infections in men. Direct funding to prevent HIV infection in men represents only approximately 28 percent of HIV funding in Mississippi. The Department of Health contends the rate is dropping, but that is only for women at this point. According to their own figures (which they do not yet make available online), 344 new HIV infection cases were reported from January to July 2008. Those are only the reported cases. They do not take into account people who are not tested regularly for HIV/AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that as many as 25 percent of people with HIV disease do not know they are infected.
The truth is that we do not know how many people have HIV/AIDS infections in Mississippi. We do know that people are infected, and the numbers will continue to grow unless we start to implement the right preventative programs in Mississippi.
We talk about HIV/AIDS as if it exists elsewhere (New York City or California), to others (Africans) or to people who somehow deserve punishment (gay men). The reality is that our friends, church members and families are also being infected with HIV/AIDSand it is preventable.
Some small steps have been made in Mississippi. I praise the Mississippi State Health Department for organizing a Faith Forum titled "Breaking the Silence" that was held on Sept. 5, 2008. The purpose of the event was to invite pastors, church members, and community stakeholders to talk about how the church can help provide compassion and play a key role in HIV prevention. This forum provided a space to discuss the topic outside the context of health departments, statistics and public health venues. We know these traditional venues do not always reach communities most at risk. This conference was an amazing starting point. These efforts are noble but they are not enough.
To fully address HIV and prevent its spread in ALL our communities we must hold the Department of Health accountable. Today, the Department of Health should be commended for listening to the concerns of the Community Planning Group members. Tomorrow, most importantly, these concerns need to be addressed. We as citizens must demand it. The Department of Health places high priority on preventing HIV, but the priorities at this point are misguided. They need to fund programs that truly target communities most at risk. The Department's strategy is playing a game of darts and forgetting that the bull's eye is the goal. Let's focus on the current bull's eye because lives are at stake. The men of Mississippi deserve that.
Sarah Young is a licensed master social worker and the New Voices Fellow for the ACLU of Mississippi.
I'm confused, which is not uncommon for me, about how a silent protest inside a monthly meeting of the Community Planning Group is supposed to do anything? How does that work exactly? So you are having a meeting and there is at some point a moment of silent protest? If it is silent how do those being protested know that they are in fact being protested? If someone protests me I hope they do it silently.
I applaud your efforts to raise awareness on this mostly overlooked issue. Just because a disease mainly effects a certain group of people who engage in certain types of behavior doesn't mean we should not try to prevent it's spread. Awareness of the ways HIV/AIDS is spread has certainly done a lot to slow it. Why are people still not getting the message? This disease is entirely preventable if people know what to do and not to do.