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AIDS creeps back in NC

Rosa Munoz comforts Bulia Ramsey while the names of those who died of AIDS in 2004 are read aloud at a World AIDS Day multifaith service at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh. Munoz, 50, was diagnosed with AIDS 11 years ago. (Photos by Corey Lowenstein)

This is bad news, but not surprising at all. This article opens up plenty of hard discussions about race, religion, sexual activity and poverty — explosive topics a lot of southerners would prefer not to talk about, even though HIV transmission is rising at an alarming rate, especially in black women. Twenty-five thousand people in NC have contracted HIV. Most of the women that have contracted it are poor, black and had sex with a man they thought was monogamous. (News and Observer):

“In North Carolina, new cases are nearing historic highs, ticking upward for the past three years after stabilizing in the 1990s. In 2003, 2,100 people were newly diagnosed. African-Americans, while only 22 percent of the population, accounted for 71 percent of the state’s caseload. Black women were 14 times as likely to contract HIV as white women.”

…African-American women are at great risk, particularly those who engage in unprotected sex and drug use. Such women are often outcasts, even in churches. The Rev. Kelvin Redmond, pastor of Body of Christ Church in Raleigh, said HIV has not been a priority in many black churches where people are dealing with the daily grind of earning a living and raising children: “We have a tendency to forget that people’s lives are affected by HIV,” he said.

And they are troubled lives to begin with. A study released last week from North Carolina researchers found that a group of black women with recent HIV diagnoses took a far different path than did healthy black women: They were much more likely to have received public assistance, to have had 20 or more sex partners, to have used crack cocaine.

Dr. Peter A. Leone, an AIDS researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and lead author of the report, said the HIV patients in the study reported feeling powerless to protect themselves. Poor women who rely on men for support are often afraid to demand condom use, he said, while others are not even aware they’re at risk.

“Almost a quarter of the women learned about their HIV status when they went in for prenatal screening,” he said. “A third reported that they had a monogamous relationship. The reason they reported for not using a condom was because they trusted their partner.”

One of Leone’s colleagues at UNC is Dr. Adaora Adimora, who has studied how poverty, race and HIV intersect. Adimora said a variety of social factors contribute to the racial imbalance of HIV infections in this country, most of which arise from poverty.

Fighting poverty, she said, would go a long way toward stemming the HIV epidemic.

“Poverty affects your choices,” Adimora said. “It affects where you live, where your children go to school and who you mix with. It affects the type of education you get, and that affects the type of jobs you qualify for, and that affects how poor you are.”

Adimora is interested in the sexual networks in many African-American communities, particularly concurrent sexual relationships — when a person juggles two or three different liaisons, say, rather than conduct a series of monogamous affairs.

Such relationships are common in both black and white communities, but research suggests they may be more prevalent among African-Americans. The reasons are complex: Violence, joblessness and prison reduce the number of black men eligible for marrying, so women often settle for relationships with men they know, or suspect, aren’t monogamous.

…”There are huge issues of stigma and fear that drive behaviors underground,” he said, and that helps the virus spread.

What would help turn the tide is education – about how HIV is transmitted, about high-risk sexual practices, and a serious attempt at undoing the demonization of homosexuality by the support systems this population relies upon — the church.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding