Having come of age in the early 90's, the specter of HIV and AIDS was more or less beaten into my generation, that sex was basically going to kill you if you had it. Having protected sex was still seen as something potentially lethal and terrifying, and largely responsible for the awful abstinence movement that followed in schools 20 years later.
But HIV has always been far worse for the black community, and for the LGBT community, and for black gay and bisexual men in 2017, the rate of HIV infection now surpasses the national rate for any country on Earth.
Early on a balmy morning last October, Cedric Sturdevant began his rounds along the bumpy streets and back roads of Jackson, Miss. Sturdevant, 52, has racked up nearly 300,000 miles driving in loops and widening circles around Jackson in his improvised role of visiting nurse, motivational coach and father figure to a growing number of young gay men and transgender women suffering from H.I.V. and AIDS. Sturdevant is a project coordinator at My Brother’s Keeper, a local social-services nonprofit. If he doesn’t make these rounds, he has learned, many of these patients will not get to the doctor’s appointments, pharmacies, food banks and counseling sessions that can make the difference between life and death.
Negotiating a maze of unpaved roads in Jackson in the company car, a 13-year-old Ford Expedition with cracked seats and chipped paint, he stopped to drop off H.I.V. medication at a couple’s home. One of the men was H.I.V.-positive, the other negative; they lived in the neighborhood locals call the Bottom, where every fifth or sixth home is abandoned, with broken windows, doors hanging off hinges, downed limbs and dry leaves blanketing front yards. Sturdevant banged on the door of a small house, its yard overgrown with weeds; he knew not to leave the package on the doorstep, where it could be stolen. After a while a young man emerged, shirtless, shrugging off sleep. He had just gotten out of jail. Sturdevant handed him the package, shook his hand and told him to “stay out of trouble.”
Sturdevant drove on another 15 minutes to pick up Marq (a shortened version of his name to protect his privacy), a teenager who was still reeling from the H.I.V. diagnosis he received the previous spring. As they headed to and from a doctor’s appointment and a meeting with a counselor, Sturdevant, slow-talking and patient, with eyes that disappear into his cheekbones when he smiles and a snowy beard, gently grilled him, reminding him to stay on his meds. The teenager slumped in the back seat, half listening, half checking his texts. He looked up briefly when Sturdevant told him, “You’ve come a long way. I’m proud of you.” But Marq barely said goodbye as he jumped out of the car in front of a convenience store on an avenue scattered with a pawnshop, a liquor store and several Baptist churches, and he all but admitted he was planning to spend the afternoon smoking weed and looking at Instagram. “Knucklehead,” Sturdevant whispered, as the teenager slammed the door. Pulling off his favorite Dallas Cowboys baseball cap and running a hand over his bald head, Sturdevant added softly, “Breaks my heart.”
These patients of Sturdevant’s are the faces of one of America’s most troubling public-health crises. Thanks to the success of lifesaving antiretroviral medication pioneered 20 years ago and years of research and education, most H.I.V.-positive people today can lead long, healthy lives. In cities like New York and San Francisco, once ground zero for the AIDS epidemic, the virus is no longer a death sentence, and rates of infection have plummeted. In fact, over the past several years, public-health officials have championed the idea that an AIDS-free generation could be within reach — even without a vaccine. But in certain pockets of the country, unknown to most Americans, H.I.V. is still ravaging communities at staggering rates.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using the first comprehensive national estimates of lifetime risk of H.I.V. for several key populations, predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus. That compares with a lifetime risk of one in 99 for all Americans and one in 11 for white gay and bisexual men. To offer more perspective: Swaziland, a tiny African nation, has the world’s highest rate of H.I.V., at 28.8 percent of the population. If gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate would surpass that of this impoverished African nation — and all other nations.
The crisis is most acute in Southern states, which hold 37 percent of the country’s population and as of 2014 accounted for 54 percent of all new H.I.V. diagnoses. The South is also home to 21 of the 25 metropolitan areas with the highest H.I.V. prevalence among gay and bisexual men. Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, the country’s poorest state, is best known for blues, barbecue and “The Help.” It also has the nation’s highest rate — 40 percent — of gay and bisexual men living with H.I.V., followed by Columbia, S.C.; El Paso; Augusta, Ga.; and Baton Rouge, La. In Jackson, a small city of just over 170,000, half a dozen black gay or bisexual men receive the shock of a diagnosis every month, and more than 3,600 people, the majority of them black men, live with the virus.
The South also has the highest numbers of people living with H.I.V. who don’t know they have been infected, which means they are not engaged in lifesaving treatment and care — and are at risk of infecting others. An unconscionable number of them are dying: In 2014, according to a new analysis from Duke University, 2,952 people in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) died with H.I.V. as an underlying cause, with the highest death rates in Mississippi and Louisiana. Among black men in this region, the H.I.V.-related death rate was seven times as high as that of the United States population at large.
We talk about living in a world now where HIV can be treated, but there's still plenty of people who don't get tested and can't afford treatment even if they are aware they have the virus. Especially for younger black folk, HIV is not something they worry about, or get tested for, like those my age. That wasn't drilled into them, they took it for granted.
But here it is, destroying the black community, and awareness is just not something that happens anymore. Maybe this article will help.