June 22, 2012
It started with a bus tour through Alabama in March. AIDS United invited a group of stakeholders along with our partners in the state to witness firsthand the impact of the HIV epidemic in the South. As they listened to heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story, from service providers to advocates, the charge as well as the mission became clear. The faces and personal stories provided not only a sharper lens but a deeper context to understand the effects of HIV/AIDS on the region. And though there has already been considerable work and investment in the South by many groups, the size of the challenge reminds us exactly how much is left to be done.
On Tuesday, June 19th, AIDS United convened two bipartisan Congressional roundtables: one for House members and staff hosted by Representatives Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) also attended. Senators Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, and Kay Hagen, a Democrat from North Carolina, hosted the roundtable for Senators and staff.
The group spent the morning and afternoon engaged in intense discussions around the drivers of the HIV epidemic in the South and innovative solutions. One of the challenges discussed was stigma, stunningly illustrated by one of the speakers, Dr. Laurie Dill, Medical Director of Medical AIDS Outreach in Alabama. Among other examples, Dr. Dill shared a story about how some of her HIV-positive clients have been forced to eat off of paper plates rather than use regular dishes at family gatherings.
The gap in resources to fight the epidemic in the South also came up frequently during the discussion. Kathy Hiers, Executive Director of AIDS Alabama, expressed "We've got to move the dollars where people with HIV are in need." The impact of HIV among women was referenced throughout the roundtables. Sexism and domestic violence are thought to be part of the driving forces of the epidemic in the region.
Other challenges in the South include poverty, racism, rural challenges, poor education, homophobia and health infrastructure challenges. Late diagnosis is also a significant challenge. The later someone is diagnosed, the more expensive and difficult it is to treat her or him.
Though the challenges of HIV in the South cannot be overstated, and there was considerable time spent discussing them, the group was diligent in offering innovative solutions. As Senator Kay Hagan stated in the meeting, "We've got to invest in innovation." Approaches that were highlighted include: a telemedicine program in Alabama funded by AIDS United, where doctors, nurses, and other clinicians are able to communicate with patients virtually, while being physically located in different spaces. This is critical because transportation is often a barrier to accessing care for people in Alabama. Another innovative approach echoed through the discussions was the importance of public/private partnerships as an instrument of innovation.
Ronald Johnson, Vice President of Policy for AIDS United, provided insight on how we can build on the Congressional roundtables and advance the work moving forward. In particular, AIDS United has suggested that new research be performed to get improved metrics and other indicators that can provide a better picture of the severity of the epidemic in the South and on the social drivers of the epidemic. Such research could become an important tool for policy development. Mr. Johnson also stressed the critical value of public/private partnerships and how an AIDS free generation is within our grasp.
Charles Stephens is regional organizer for the South.