May 23, 2012
Around 150 people gathered Sunday near the state Capitol in Baton Rouge to mark International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day.
The city has some 5,000 residents living with HIV/AIDS, of whom 76 percent are black, said Jack Carrel, administrator for the Baton Rouge Ryan White Program. Ninety-one percent of new diagnoses are black. "The disparity here in Baton Rouge is really something," he said.
Twanda Lewis, who was among those in attendance, said HIV/AIDS stigma is a particular problem for Baton Rouge's African Americans. "We struggle in this community with stigma. It's a big issue," she said.
Education and prevention are key to reducing the stigma and impact of AIDS, according to Cassandra Whitty. She has been living with HIV since 2000 and chairs the board of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two Inc. (HAART). "I feel great, I feel happy. But there are a lot of people who live in silence," she said.
Another concern is that more young people and women are becoming infected, said Tim Young, executive director of HAART, which sponsored the event. "They think they're invincible, like this can't happen to me,'" he said. "But with such high rates in the city, if they're having unprotected sex, they're greatly increasing their chance of contracting the virus."
HAART offers free HIV testing, as well as free treatment and services for those who are positive. The Baton Rouge AIDS Society also provides free testing.