Baton Rouge leads the nation in new AIDS cases. For the second time in the row. According to HAART, the Capitol City is also second for HIV and Louisiana is fourth in the nation for estimated AIDS cases.
(All of these numbers can be found through the CDC here.)
When the latest round of numbers was released by the CDC last week, I wasn't surprised at the ranking. Even before taking over Healthline, I had done several stories on the disease and knew that it was prevalent throughout the Southeast especially.
What did surprise me, however, was the number of people I spoke with who were not aware of Baton Rouge's "top" ranking, and who were genuinely shocked to learn the ratings.
Again let me say, Baton Rouge leads the nation in new AIDS cases.
In my humble opinion, every single person in this city should be shouting this from the roof tops, spreading awareness and warning their neighbors. Folks, this is what an epidemic looks like.
HIV/AIDS is a preventable. So, what aren't we doing?
"We've been in the top five but what have we done about it? We have not established a community plan as to how we're going to lower our rates of infection," Rev. A.J. Johnson told Channel 9 last week.
Johnson is with the Baton Rouge AIDS Society. He says there is not enough effort to let people know what is happening.
"We don't want to air our laundry per se. We don't want to put it out there that we're number one. But in the meantime, we're keeping this information from our community," said Johnson.
If the ranking is not upsetting enough, infectious disease specialist Dr. Tatiana Saavedra with LSU's Mid-City Clinic told me that in her experience, the fastest rising demographic for infections are ages 13 to 24.
It would seem that education and testing are two key things missing in our city.
However, they aren't really missing. Testing and education resources are here and readily available. Johnson and Saavedra both say people aren't taking advantage.
For example, the Baton Rouge AIDS Society offers testing each week, and will even arrange a private and confidential testing appointment. Click here to find the times and locations.
HAART is full of resource guides about prevention, treatment and even living with the disease. For that, click here.
Through the stories that I've done, I've spoken with doctors, advocates and even those who carry the disease. Each time I ask, "What is the biggest myth surrounding AIDS?"
Each time I am told the biggest myth is believing, "I can't get infected."
"I was one of those same people. I was not one of those people who were characterized for HIV, to actually be infected with HIV but unfortunately I am," said Sharon Decuir.
Decuir was diagnosed nearly a decade ago. She now heads up preventative program for HAART. She teaches people how to talk about safe sex practices, and how to avoid risky behavior. She also advocates for testing.
"We need to get people comfortable with being tested," said Decuir. "They need to know testing is essential in finding out where you stand because with treatment you can have a quality and long life."
A tremendous stigma still surrounds AIDS, and many people are afraid to get tested and confront the disease because of that. Fortunately, there have been many advances in the treatment of AIDS.
"It's now treated as a chronic disease," Saavedra told me once. "It's no longer a death sentence."
Advocates and medical staff have both said that it will take the entire community to change Baton Rouge's rating. That means leaders, churches, parents and neighbors have to step up and make a stand.
Only then will we reach the goal set on World AIDS Day in November: Zero new cases, zero discrimination, and zero AIDs related deaths.
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