Neglecting HIV/AIDS in the Southeast

CNN

Dr. Vincent Marconi travels to Durban, South Africa, every summer with his family to work with hundreds of HIV and AIDS patients. Despite global support for research and high-profile activists, AIDS continues to batter many developing countries. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates that there are 5.6 million people in South Africa alone living with the deadly disease.

Still, after every trip to Africa, Marconi returns home to Atlanta, Georgia, to continue his work at the Ponce De Leon Center, one of the largest HIV/AIDS facilities in the United States. The center’s staff provides medical services to approximately 5,000 men, women, adolescents and children.

Here in the southeast U.S., he says, HIV/AIDS is very much a neglected problem.

“A great amount of attention has been put overseas,” said Marconi, who’s also an associate professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine. “Especially in these economically challenged times, we tend to be myopic in our efforts in our charitable giving. People say, ‘I’m already giving towards the international HIV effort – I can’t see two epidemics happening.’ No one wants to believe that extreme poverty and neglect exist in such a rich and powerful nation as this one.”

At the end of 2008, an estimated 1,178,350 persons aged 13 and older were living with HIV or AIDS in the United States. And the CDC estimates that approximately 50,000 people are infected with HIV each year.

In the southeast, the epidemic is growing faster than in any other region in the country. African-Americans constitute 12% of the population in the United States but account for approximately 45% of those newly infected with HIV, according to the CDC. And some of the South’s biggest cities topped the CDC’s list of diagnosis rates in 2008: Miami. Atlanta. Memphis, Tennessee. Orlando. New Orleans. Charlotte, North Carolina.

Patrick Packer, executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, describes it as the “perfect storm.” The coalition was formed in 2001 to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS outbreak – what the group calls a state of emergency in the South. The problem is three-fold, Packer says: stigma prevents education and promotes fear; socio-economic factors prevent the infected from receiving medical attention; and the lack of a focused strategy prevents agencies from using the few resources available effectively.

This week CNN Health’s team is taking a close look at the epidemic with a series leading up to World AIDS Day on December 1.

CNN technical producer Curt Merrill worked with data from the CDC, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and the National Minority Quality Forum to create an interactive map showing the prevalence of AIDS and HIV in the United States compared to our levels of obesity, stroke, heart disease and male/female life expectancy. Click here to see the areas most affected and to search for your county or state.

On Monday, Jacque Wilson profiles Pastor Brenda Byrth, who is taking a stand against the HIV/AIDS stigma in rural South Carolina. Then on Tuesday, Madison Park analyzes the growing HIV rates in northern Florida. On Wednesday, Elizabeth Landau introduces us to Crystal, a homeless drug addict in Atlanta whose top priorities are getting clean and finding a place to live – not dealing with her diagnosis.

The series will culminate with an in-depth look at the work being done at the Ponce De Leon Clinic and the hope for a solution to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southeastern United States.

Please take a moment each day to read these stories and tell us yours. If you or someone you know has been affected by AIDS, visit the CDC’s website or AIDS.gov to find out more.