BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - "This has been a trying circumstance for me," said Cassandra Whitty. She has been HIV positive for 16 years. She's one of many people in Baton Rouge that have to deal with the disease.
According to the Louisiana Department of Health, Baton Rouge has the highest estimated HIV and AIDS rates per capita among all cities in the United States.
"As a community, we are not addressing it," says AJ Johnson, the founder of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society. He says Baton Rouge has been either number one or number two in HIV and AIDS rates for the past 15 years. He believes nothing is improving because people are ignoring the problem.
"It's a shhhh... We don't want people to pass through Baton Rouge and see that one of the things we have a problem with is HIV and AIDS in our community. That's always been a negative stigma," Johnson said.
Whitty believes that over time, people have paid less attention to the problem. She hopes more people realize the dangers of HIV, which is an infection that can eventually develop into AIDS, leading to a weakened immune system and higher risk of death.
"They don't believe, they don't believe that it could happen to them. It could happen to anybody," Whitty said. Both Whitty and Johnson say getting tested is very important, because detecting HIV early will prevent more serious infection.
In recognition of World AIDS Day, the AIDS Society and Our Lady of the Lake Hospital offered free HIV tests Thursday, and will offer them again on
Sunday, December 4. All it takes is a little prick of the finger, and a blood test will show results in about 20 minutes.
"A lot of people are scared to get tested, but if you have HIV, there's medication and treatment available that can prolong that life, that you can live a healthy life," Johnson said.
"I've been living with it for 16 years, so it's not a death sentence anymore. I live life just like I would if I didn't have the disease," said Whitty.