New South, New Problems

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STATEMENT: The National HIV Prevention Conference

New South, New Problems

More than 3,000 AIDS experts have come together this week in Atlanta, Ga., to talk about the future of HIV prevention. The meeting’s location is appropriate. Much has been made in recent years of vibrant African-American communities that typify New South cities like Atlanta, with its burgeoning upper-middle class. But there’s another new reality to Black life below the Mason-Dixon Line: A rapidly-spreading epidemic that neither local communities nor the nation at-large has begun to adequately address.

Forty-one percent of people living with AIDS are in the Southeast and the region is home to twice the number of positive Black women as the Northeast. In states like Alabama and North Carolina—where AIDS Drug Assistance Programs boast waiting lists in the hundreds—the need has far outpaced the resources.

As new infections pile up, overloading a teetering care network, prevention efforts remain scant. This reality is part of a woeful national trend: The White House proposed a $4 million cut to the federal HIV prevention budget for the coming year.

Washington would like us to have a zero-sum debate–either keep the status quo or redirect money from the large urban centers where the epidemic first erupted. We must reject this sort of thinking. There are more people living with HIV/AIDS today than ever before, yet our federal AIDS budget has remained all-but-flat since 2001. If we don’t want the numbers to continue rising, we must dedicate more money to the prevention programs that we know work, everywhere.

The responsibility is not the government’s alone. One community group that can really make a difference is the church.

Last month, more than two-dozen Black religious leaders met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss providing Black churches money to do AIDS work in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a historic meeting that must be applauded; hopefully the Bush Administration will follow through. But those religious leaders must also speak to both the Administration and their own communities about HIV. The group AIDS Alabama recently surveyed TK of its clients and found two thirds pray at least six times a week—the ground is fertile for ministries that help people take care of themselves.

Throughout the summer and fall will feature new reporting on the Southern epidemic, with investigative reports, columnists and profiles of the innovative prevention campaigns that have limited resources but are making a difference.

Be it in our own communities or in government, Black America can no longer accept either/or distinctions when it comes to HIV. It’s not the North or the South, global or domestic; it’s both. HIV does not quibble over such distinctions, and neither can we.

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