AIDS groups see stigma, misinformation in Miss.

By Molly Davis/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi residents hold misperceptions and stigmas about HIV and AIDS that rival those found in sub-Saharan Africa, health advocates told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Residents from across the state confirmed that such beliefs discourage testing and treatment.

“We talked to people who said that they would rather die from the disease than let their neighbors know they have HIV,” said Megan McLemore, a senior health researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The broader coalition, which includes Mississippi group A Bright New Day and Harvard researchers, hosted what they say is the first of many Annual HIV/AIDS Days at the Capitol. They asked state lawmakers to re-examine a variety of state policies and increase the budget for treating patients. They also called for a more effective sex education bill than the one currently awaiting the governor’s consideration.

Human Rights Watch says in a new report that Mississippi has promoted discrimination against homosexuals in schools, actively resisted accepting more federal funds, and failed to adopt proven strategies to lower transmission and death. The report says this especially impacts minority groups’ access to information and care.

“These policies combine to create a high-risk environment where it is difficult for many people to avoid HIV infection and to access lifesaving treatment and support,” according to the report, “Rights at Risk: State Response to HIV in Mississippi.”

Roughly half of all new AIDS cases arise from the South, which also dedicates the fewest resources to the epidemic, according to another report released at the meeting by Harvard’s State Healthcare Access Research Project. The report says that 50 percent of known HIV-positive people are not being treated.

“It will increase until Southerners stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,'” said Patrick Packer, the executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who chairs the Public Health and Human Services Committee, supports increasing state funding, but says it will likely stay at the same level at which it has been funded since 1993. At $750,000, Mississippi’s state contribution to the HIV/AIDS budget is lower than all other states except Arkansas. With federal matching funds, the program comes to $16.2 million in Mississippi.

Holland said he first decided to take on the issue when he served as an undertaker in Tupelo in the 1980s. He said that misperceptions about how HIV is transmitted were widespread, even among his profession.

“For 10 to 12 years, I embalmed everyone that died of AIDS because no other embalmers would get around this total fear,” Holland said.

Along with budget concerns, McLemore criticized the sex education bill’s ban on demonstrating condom use and requirement for teachers to emphasize contraceptives’ failure rate. She said research has demonstrated that the bill’s abstinence-based strategy is ineffective, and that a stigma against discussing sex means that the optional nature of the program will serve to exclude many students.

“We all know that these are uncomfortable topics to talk about, but we all know that students in Mississippi are sexually active and they need this lifesaving information,” McLemore said.

She also expressed concern about Mississippi’s legal opposition to the federal health care reform and state laws criminalizing HIV exposure.

Dr. Nicholas Mosca, the new director for the state Department of Health’s sexually transmitted diseases/HIV program, said he wants to encourage testing, despite stigma. He congratulated the roughly 30 patients and advocates standing behind him for their public stance, saying patients who receive treatment can live long, productive lives.

“HIV is now a chronic condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure,” Mosca said.

But local residents at the meeting confirmed that stigma is rampant in the state. Sandra Stringfellow of Greenwood has been HIV positive for 16 years, and she said that health agency officials tried to force her to abort her child, who’s now 6 and does not have HIV.

“My neighbors don’t fool with me,” she said. “I’m really ostracized. I’m concerned that as my child grows people will start to treat her funny.”

Stringfellow said HIV patients in her community frequently don’t pick up their medications because they are afraid people at the pharmacy will find out about their condition. She said that HIV, among many communities in Mississippi, carries a more shameful association than an addiction to crack or methamphetamine.

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