Listen Up, Mr. President: HIV Has Moved South

Bonnie Adams Kapp

South Carolina has consistently ranked in the top 10 for HIV/AIDS infection rates in the US. On Monday the White House Office of National AIDS Policy will hold a townhall in Charleston. Also watch our video report.

If you have had your head above water, you likely have noticed that South Carolina has been in the news a lot lately. First there was our governor’s Brazilian waxing-poetic, followed by a state partisan’s hurling of insults at Mrs. Obama, and then there was of course The Outburst, by Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) which will live in infamy both locally and nationally.

No, the news has not been good for South Carolina. But, regrettably, things here may be even worse than you imagine.  South Carolina, like a number of states in the Southeastern region, is being devastated by a silent enemy that hasn’t attracted a lot of media attention lately: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers South Carolina one of the top-ten HIV “hot spots” in the nation. We have the eighth highest AIDS rate in the U.S., yet apparently neither we nor our region have made it onto many policymakers’ radar screens.

Linda Brown, of the South Carolina Deptarment of Health Division of HIV/STDs, Bambi Gaddist from the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council and Deadra Lawson Smith of Project Faith discuss the HIV/AIDS situation in South Carolina ahead of Monday’s townhall meeting on the subject with the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy.

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On Monday, Oct 26th representatives from the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) will be in our capital for a town hall meeting, and we are very grateful to them for coming to South
Carolina. State health professionals, community-based organizations and
HIV/AIDS advocates will have the opportunity not only to voice concerns, but also to make their recommendations about what the federal government can do to help states such as South Carolina — those that are southern, primarily rural, economically depressed, and revenue-poor – get on top of this public health problem. Many of us are hoping that members of South Carolina’s own Congressional delegation will be tuned in, if not attending themselves.

Also, now is the critical time of year when a House-Senate conference committee will zero-in on the federal budget’s Labor, Health & Human Services and Education appropriations for next fiscal year. A move is afoot within the House and Senate to resuscitate the failed Abstinence-Only Beast that sits like a troll in a very Grimm tale, waiting and willing to eat our young (or anyone else) to sustain itself. That any member of South Carolina’s own Congressional delegation would vote to pour millions more of tax payers’ dollars into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — rather than investing in HIV-prevention in South Carolina — is unfathomable. It also would indicate a serious lack of understanding on the part of our Congressional representatives about the seriousness of HIV in our state.

HIV s no less than a public health crisis in South Carolina. We have few public or rivate resources to dedicate to preventing the spread of HIV. This is not the ime for ambivalence in Washington, nor is it a time when we can allow urselves to be victimized by Congressional compromises or backroom deal-making — and HIV-prevention should not be overshadowed by Congressional representatives’ personal or ideological ties to the abstinence-only gluttons back home. Reinvesting in abstinence-only funding streams not only would divert needed funds from HIV-prevention at home, but also would cause further obstruction of medically accurate sexual health education in our schools and communities. South Carolinians have suffered too much from this already.

In fact, some of the responsibility for the growth of our HIV epidemic could arguably be laid at the feet of those who have worked vigorously to censor public health information.  To House Majority Whip and Congressman James Clyburn (SC-Sixth), to Congressman John Spratt (SC-Fifth), and to U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham we would say:

You are our state’s best hope.  You have supported federal funding for treatment of South Carolinians, who are infected with HIV/AIDS, via Ryan White renewals, and all South Carolinians should be thankful to each of you for your support, which has been and will continue to be vital. However, only a small portion of federal funding to date has been dedicated to HIV prevention, and we must have more funding to put more boots-on-the-ground to prevent HIV here at home.

HIV-prevention work is inherently labor-intensive in the South. Southern, rural communities are hardest hit and hardest to reach. Also, we need more prevention-soldiers to fan out among historically black colleges and universities, to protect many of our “best and brightest” so that they do not become infected with HIV. (Almost one-third of new HIV cases in South Carolina are transmitted heterosexually.)

A major, federally funded, multi-year public health campaign is needed to educate people about how to prevent HIV infection. A federal mandate for comprehensive health education in our schools is needed, including mandatory education about sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. There are evaluated, evidence-based programs that tell us what to do; we simply need the funding to implement them with fidelity.

Last year, when House Majority Whip Clyburn announced the passage of H.R. 5501, the Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008, he stated:

Helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases around the world is a moral responsibility of the United States government and one which this New Direction Congress takes very seriously.

It is time for an equally ambitious and dedicated investment at home.

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