OTHER OPINIONS: Tennessee is in the midst of an HIV epidemic

By The Nashville Tennessean

Child obesity and diabetes, yes; these growing health threats are becoming well-known here. But Tennessee also is one of eight Southern states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.

This troubling statistic comes from Centers for Disease Control surveillance data that has been studied by the Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research, and was released this week by the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative, of which Nashville CARES is a coalition partner.

Also alarming is the fact that nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of death due to HIV are in the South, and Tennessee is one of them.

Why is this so? How is it that today, on World AIDS Day, Tennessee and her neighbors are headed in the wrong direction?

The Duke Center notes some pervasive factors for Tennessee and the South in general:

• 1.3 million, or more one in six Tennesseans lives in poverty, which means more of its residents than most states cannot afford health care or health insurance.

• The majority of African-Americans live in the South, and that group is disproportionately affected by HIV in the U.S.

• A majority of Tennesseans live in rural areas and small towns, where there are few HIV care providers and lower incomes and prolonged travel are barriers to getting access to care.

• Perhaps most distressing are the cultural issues that contribute to HIV transmission in Tennessee and across the South. The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, which has diminished in other parts of the country where education levels are higher, persists here. This causes some individuals living with HIV to avoid treatment, the Duke Center says.

In addition, the prevalence of abstinence-based sex education or a lack of sex education in general means that teens in Tennessee are less likely to protect themselves from HIV and sexually transmitted disease transmission.

It doesn’t take much to see that economic and government policy decisions at state and federal levels in the past decade have contributed to the problem. Cut social programs and fail to educate children about healthy practices, and HIV will thrive even as science is making huge strides to bring it under control.

That’s right: There are therapies and medicines that extend the lives of people with HIV/AIDS and even improve their quality of life, if the virus is detected early. But in Tennessee, an individual is more likely to worry about being known as having HIV, or cannot afford the care that results in early detection.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing cuts to AIDS research funding in 2012, just as prospects for patients have begun to improve.

Thirty million people worldwide have died of HIV/AIDS over the 30 years since the virus emerged. If our leaders, from President Obama and Congress, to our governors and state legislatures, even to local school boards and public health departments do not give this epidemic the attention it deserves, it will continue to sicken and kill millions —and not just people in far-flung parts of the world, but in our community.

-The Nashville Tennessean