December 2, 2011
Dorchester, S.C., population 2,593, is typical of the rural towns found across the Southeast, the US region with the highest rate of diagnosed AIDS cases: 9.2 per 100,000 people. Rural areas like this have been particularly hard-hit by the epidemic, primarily because of stigma, poor education, and lack of funding.
Dr. Leandro A. Mena, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said AIDS-related stigma begins with sex. Many socially conservative Southerners find it difficult to talk openly about sex with their children, let alone with strangers. "That's one of the first barriers to really having an open discussion about how HIV is transmitted," said Mena.
Religion can be another barrier. Mena noted the negative associations some feel about drug use, premarital sex or homosexuality. "Imagine the challenge that this may present in terms of HIV prevention. How can you persuade someone -- who believes that no matter what you do, in the end you're going to hell -- that you have to do something to protect yourself?" he asked.
At Dorchester's Bibleway Holiness Church, Pastor Brenda Byrth conducts HIV/AIDS awareness meetings. About 10 to 12 people typically attend -- a good turnout for a congregation of 25, she said, but also an indication of AIDS' widespread impact in this rural setting.
Tommy Terry attended Byrth's most recent meeting, which only attracted four congregants. Terry lost his partner of 10 years to AIDS in 2005, and was unable to find a nearby pastor willing to pray for the man. "When somebody has AIDS, they just walk away from you," Terry observed. "They don't want nothing to do with you."