BTAN Mississippi: Taking on the Challenge of HIV
As long as there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, the virus remains a threat. In Mississippi, HIV/AIDS has been particularly lethal, with the Magnolia State ranked fifth in the nation (pdf) in 2015 for HIV-related deaths. Getting information about prevention and treatment to the community is key to helping people in Mississippi live healthier lives. A three-day training hosted by the Black AIDS Institute and the Mississippi chapter of the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) sought to do just that.
The three-day training took place Nov. 1-3, 2017. The goal was to provide information on the latest advances in HIV prevention, treatment, care and advocacy while also reintroducing the people of Mississippi to BTAN and its work.
Mississippi’s Black communities have been harder hit by HIV than other groups. In 2014, 73 percent of Mississippi residents living with HIV were Black, 20 percent were White and 3 percent were Latino, according to AIDSVu, a project by Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and Emory’s Center for AIDS Research and Gilead Sciences. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, young adults ages 20-29 represented 45 percent of new cases of HIV in 2015, although Black men between the ages of 20 and 24 were impacted the most.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
Naturally, much of the discussion during the training revolved around how local communities are being affected by HIV and why the numbers are so high in Mississippi. One reason could be stigma. Some training participants shared that they believe that Mississippi’s location in the heart of the Bible Belt could play a role in stigmatizing people with HIV. “Some believe that if you are living with HIV, it is because of some type of divine punishment, when that is not the case,” says Marcus McPherson, co-chair of BTAN Mississippi. However, the fear of being judged could keep some people from getting tested. If they are, in fact, HIV positive and don’t get into treatment, they are more likely to transmit HIV to others, and they are likely to see their own health deteriorate.
The training touched upon other issues, too, such as challenges facing people living with HIV/AIDS, including transportation and access to affordable care and services.
One area that sparked a lot of interest was the legal aspect of HIV in Mississippi. “We do have criminalization laws here,” McPherson says. For example, a person can receive 10 years of prison time and pay a fine of up to $10,000 (pdf) for knowingly exposing someone to HIV, whether or not he or she had the intention of doing so, and regardless of whether transmission actually took place. “A lot of attendees were interested to see that people who were living with HIV were treated so much differently than any other disease,” McPherson says.
A Focal Point for Change
While the event succeeded in providing information to community members about the latest in HIV prevention and treatment, it also had another lasting effect. It brought together people who are new to HIV/AIDS advocacy, McPherson says.
While some in attendance were community advocates who have been working in HIV/AIDS advocacy for years, other attendees didn’t have as much experience or knowledge. But they all had something in common: They wanted to find out how they could be part of the movement. There were also several graduate students who are studying public health and looking to explore how their education and knowledge can be put to use when it comes to HIV/AIDS in Mississippi.
That sense of inclusion can be a powerful impetus for change. “Here in Mississippi, a lot of people feel as if they don’t have a seat at the table,” McPherson says. Members of the community don’t always believe that they have a voice in health-care decisions that have an impact on their lives. The BTAN training gave people a way to provide input into matters that personally affect them and their loved ones. It also positioned the Mississippi chapter of BTAN to be a focal point for community change in the future.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.