By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON – Jeanette Delgado is an AIDS activist in San Diego and she said it is getting harder and harder for people to believe that AIDS is still an issue in the United States, particularly within the Latino community in which she works as a nurse.
As she left Washington July 27 after the conclusion of the XIX International AIDS Conference, which brought renewed attention of the epidemic in the U.S., she said she felt strengthened and more energized about her work back home.
“Maybe now people will believe me when I say this is serious stuff, that we still have a life-threatening epidemic on our hands,” she told Catholic News Service as she boarded a plane for the West Coast.
Recent medical advances mean that HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence. Many who begin treatment soon after infection can live with the virus indefinitely. But that’s only possible if people know their status and seek appropriate treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of the 1.2 million HIV-positive people in the U.S. do not know they are infected.
“The general mentality of Americans is that AIDS is not a problem here. I hear a lot of people say, ‘I thought that was all taken care of,’“ Father Dennis Rausch, founder of the HIV ministry of the Miami Archdiocese, told CNS.
“We’re coming to the point we have to remind people that there’s no cure because the numbers are on the rise. There’s a mentality among young people especially that they can pop a pill and everything will be fine. Indeed with Truvada (a drug the U.S. government recently approved to prevent HIV infection), studies show that people can stay negative even though they’re sexually active,” Father Rausch said.
“That sends a message that I’m not sure is good. We’re not going to stop people from having sex, so we’ve got to educate people that nothing is 100 percent safe. Some behaviors remain risky,” the priest said.
Irene Miranda, executive director of the Southeastern Conference of Catholic AIDS Ministers, said some of the challenges of responding to HIV remain unchanged since the epidemic appeared three decades ago.
“Although we’ve advanced medically and scientifically, socially and psychologically and politically we have not,” she told a gathering of Catholic AIDS workers on the eve of the conference. “The stigma, ignorance and fear that were there in the 1980s continue in our communities. That affects our capacity to care and do advocacy.”
Miranda explained that the response of HIV workers in the faith community has been challenged by cutbacks in institutional funding as well as a shift in focus among church leaders from social action to orthodoxy.
Yet Miranda has found that encouraging exceptions exist, pointing to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which continues to mandate that every Catholic school must teach two lessons on HIV awareness, prevention and personal responses to the virus.
The epidemic in the United States has found new epicenters, Miranda added, shifting from northern states and urban communities to the South and rural areas. She cited statistics showing that 50 percent of new HIV infections were reported in the South, which has 31 percent of the country’s population.
The geographic shift presents new challenges to Miranda and her colleagues in HIV ministry. She said the advocacy work of people in HIV ministry in the South and in rural communities is not as developed as the outreach in urban areas. And, she said, there continues to be the belief that “AIDS is God’s revenge.”
Miranda said the HIV epidemic also is fueled by the nation’s economic woes and racial disparity.
“Poverty and HIV infection go hand in hand,” she said. “As some have said, HIV has a preferential option for the poor. People living in poverty are much more at risk of contracting HIV, and if you have HIV you’re much more likely to be living in poverty.”
Miranda explained that with early treatment, some people consider HIV to be nothing more than a chronic disease, like diabetes.
“But in the Latino population, the average time from diagnosis to death is one year. That’s scandalous,” she said.
“Fifty percent of new infections are in black America. Seventy percent of youth who become infected are black. And 71 percent of women diagnosed with HIV today are black.”
Convening the meeting in Washington, with its large African-American population and relatively high HIV rate, provided some faith-based AIDS activists with an opportunity to speak frankly about the stubborn resilience of the disease in some U.S. communities.
“The HIV epidemic is teaching us about the commonality between African Americans and Africans. Today the rate of HIV among black women in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., is higher than the rate of HIV in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Pernessa Seele, founder of The Balm in Gilead, a faith-based organization work on health concerns in Africa and the U.S.
“We work in both Tanzania and here in the United States, and the HIV infection rate is higher among African-Americans than in Tanzania. We’re finding commonalities among black women, among men who have sex with men and amid youth. We have a lot in common with Africa, most especially about the role of faith. For black people around the world, faith is central to how they address everything in their lives, including HIV and AIDS,” Seele said.
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops