By Nick BeJeaux
While cities like New York and San Francisco adopt policies and plans to eradicate new cases of HIV/AIDS within the decade, Baton Rouge remains one of the top infected areas in the nation with no apparent eradication strategy in place.
However, some in the community have been fighting against this virus for over a decade and continue to do so, hopeful that one day Baton Rouge will be free of HIV/AIDS.
Baton Rouge’s Long Struggle with HIV, What’s Being Done And Not Done
Baton Rouge has a long history with HIV/AIDS, jumping back and forth in national rating as funding and interest in combating the virus ebbs and flows.
“It was in 2004 when we first became second in the country and, if I’m not mistaken, it has gone to six, to four, then to two, to one, then one, and now back to two – well one and too is nothing to get excited about; that means you’re not doing too much of anything,” said Reverend AJ Johnson, CEO and Founder of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society. “I think it’s a lot to say that little Baton Rouge is number two in the country. The statistics you see are per one hundred thousand and are for new AIDS cases; we’re not even talking about HIV.”
Johnson said that in 2004 BR had a very strong response to it’s dubious position of being second in the United states for rates of infection. But there have been no efforts that effective since then.
“In 2004, when we found out we were number two, I think the community responded,” he said. “They had push cards, billboards; all kinds of stuff that said ‘BR is number two, let’s do something about it.’ Well that went out like a fad and when it came back, there wasn’t the same approach. Even when we went to number one, you didn’t see what you should have seen in a city that’s number one in the country for HIV/AIDS infection rates.”
That strong response Jackson remembers, and hopes will return in Louisiana, has not only continued in other states but also grown.
“We should’ve had the approach of New York or California. We should look just like them with HIV testing promotion on busses, billboards, on the side of buildings; when you go to these cities, HIV awareness – get tested, get treated – is everywhere. Here theres only a few billboards – there’s nothing.”
While the response to HIV/AIDS in BR has indeed diminished, BRASS is making up some of that lost ground.
“At BRASS we focus on education, were a testing and training center, that’s all we do so we know what education can do. With the PFIZER Foundation we have increased knowledge about HIV/AIDS of 60 percent of the community by 50 percent – that’s amazing! We went into peoples houses – an approach unheard of before.”
“I remember when we had a grandfather – we had three generations in the room – and he told us ‘Thank you for coming out, because I didn’t even want to sit next to my grandson on the sofa.’ Ignorance and stigma can cause fear in a household because of what people don’t know.”
The Face of HIV: Fighting Against The Insidious Stigma Of HIV/AIDS
When you meet Meta Smith Davis, Prevention Specialist at HIV AIDS Alliance Region Two, immediately you sense her bright manner and outspoken humor, and those are two qualities that undoubtedly help her connect with people struggling with HIV/AIDS. She also, for better or worse, knows how to connect with patients because she has a positive HIV status for fourteen years – since April 15, 2001.
“People always ask me how can I be so positive and looking so good, but make no mistake, the woman that stands here today was not always this woman. That’s why eliminating stigma is so important to me – I felt contaminated and disassociated from my family and my society. I don’t want anyone to feel like that and that’s why I do what I do.”
Apart from promoting education and prevention of the virus, Davis’ work involves giving talks on eliminating the stigma attached to living with a positive HIV/AIDS. Davis says that stigma is particularly powerful here in Louisiana and in the South in general.
“I think a large part of that is particularly for the south – it’s the bible belt – and if you got HIV, you must have been doing something immoral or embarrassing.”
During her talks Davis is very open on the topic of sexuality and feels that sex often being a taboo subject in this part of the world is contributing to the prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“In most communities, but particularly the African American communities, we don’t talk about sex,” she said. “I didn’t have a conversation about sex growing up; I was told to keep your panies up and your legs closed. Period. I was never told what to do afterwards.”
Davis also Helps HAART connect with patients, old and new, that are fighting the virus.
“Everybody in our organization knows the most important thing to do with someone who walks through our doors feels welcome – you have to meet them where they are at,” she said. “You have to address them with dignity and respect, no matter what they look like, what they dress like or what they smell like. And I know that because I’ve looked like that, dressed like that and smelled like that.”
Davis and her Colleagues at HAART always stress that HIV does not discriminate against whom it infects and that even if you are not infected, this virus still impacts your life.
“You don’t have to be infected to be affected by the HIV virus – if you live in Baton Rouge it affects you,” said Davis. “This is all our communities. It’s not just the black folks community, the Latino community, or the gay community, it’s OUR community.”
The Emotional Impact Of Living With HIV/AIDS
Whether contracted through unprotected sex, intravenous needles, or by other means learning that you have HIV/AIDS can be a shock, to put it mildly. Often overlooked in the conversation about HIV and AIDS is the impact the disease can have on a patient’s self esteem and mental well-being.
“Many individuals are shocked initially,” said Angela Carter, a mental health counselor for Family Services of Greater Baton Rouge. “That feeling of invincibility is shattered, especially with the young. Patients tend to develop trust issues, especially if someone did not disclose their status to them – they start to not trust anyone. they have trouble developing respectful relationships. In long-term relationships, intimacy is severely impacted.”
“I often see depression and the ‘why me’ attitude – it’s like grief in a way. They grieve for who they were and are nervous about making this transition into a different life. I even see insomnia from people experiencing rumination, which is rethinking something over and over again.I also see anxiety – gosh I see so much.”
As intense of an effect that a positive status can have on your mental well-being, Carter says there are ways of coping and that they work.
“That’s one of my favorite things to work on because I find it to be very helpful to people,” she said. “Making to-do lists is something often taken for granted, but they can really relieve stress when you have a lot going on on top of dealing with HIV. We find ways and strategies to manage – getting HIV does not end your world, it only changes it.”
The Campus Connection
On March 23 Qroma LSU, one of the newest LGBT rights organizations on LSU’s campus, hosted free HIV Testing in the African American Culture Center. Qroma president and junior bio-chem major Megan Gilliam says that even on LSU’s campus, sex and STIs are a touchy subject.
“Like any STI, people treat HIV as a taboo here, though I think it has less to do with us being in the bible belt than it does with sex just not being maturely discussed,” she said. “As a result, people don’t know what to do. What we are setting out to do is open up the discussion and testing to all people.”
Qroma partnered up with HAART to offer mouth swab tests, which take about 10-15 minutes to process. In the meantime, Qroma offered workshops on safe sex open to straight, LGBT, and queer people, which Gilliam says is very important.
“Our main concern with this event is that only LGBT people would come, we really want everyone to come out and get tested,” she said. “It’s very important that people know what’s going on, so this is one of many ways we will be focusing on prevention.”