My friend Leah Cullins can tell you how tough it is to give someone the life-changing news that they are HIV positive.
And Cullins can tell you about the emotional devastation that a child and family experienced when the teenager was told that a test had come back HIV positive. Seeing the pain on their faces, the tears and devastation is rough to witness, she said.
“They cried for 40 minutes. … And then we talked about what we needed to do next,” Cullins said.
The nurse and educator can tell you about how she and other health care providers have gone out at night to bars to implore patrons to be tested and to push those that are HIV positive to prepare for a life of treatment.
So, I knew I wanted to get her thoughts — no one I know is more passionate about this subject — after I read the headline in this newspaper that despite all of the work being done here, the HIV rate in Baton Rouge is still tops in the country.
Initially, her response surprised me, but then I got it.
“The first thing I thought when I saw the story was ‘Oh, my God, it’s on the front page,” she said, her voice beginning to rise. “I was so happy because it was getting the attention that it needs. I know the numbers are there. I see it every day.”
Here’s what the story said.
Baton Rouge is ranked first in the nation for estimated HIV and AIDS case rates per 100,000 people. New Orleans ranks third for HIV and fourth for AIDS, according to the 2014 figures from the national Centers for Disease Control. Baton Rouge has been among top for several years.
Health care professionals said there are still large numbers of people who are not being tested and others who know they are HIV positive but won’t seek treatment.
Drug use, unprotected sex and the stigma of being HIV positive continue to be contributing factors that make Baton Rouge not just the capital of Louisiana but the national capital for estimated HIV.
Cullins, a nurse practitioner and professor in Southern University’s College of Nursing and Allied Sciences, is bothered by the numbers because she believes Baton Rouge and state government can do more to drive the messages of awareness and treatment.
“This is not being addressed like an epidemic. It’s really a pandemic, and people aren’t aware of it,” she said. “I know some people who thought that HIV was gone. They thought it was like leprosy. … They just don’t see enough information about it.”
Cullins, who has been a member of the Governor’s HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C Commission, says the word needs to get out that testing is brief and private. “You can know in minutes if you are positive, and then a plan of care can be started,” she said.
The biggest toll continues to fall on the black and low-income communities, according to recent findings. The stigma is so great, Cullins said, that too many refuse to get tested, and many of those who are HIV positive are afraid to get treatment.
Sadly, she said, there are some people who are bitter and won’t get treated.
She added this tip: Persons who are new to the dating scene after divorce should get tested before going on the dating scene, she said. Additionally, they should be aware of whether their new partners have been tested.
“We only talk about this issue once a year when the numbers come out that Baton Rouge is still No. 1 or close to it. We don’t do anything else again until the next year when we are alarmed again,” she said.
“Look, we need people go to AIDS Healthcare Foundation where I work,” she said, or HAART (HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two) in Baton Rouge or to their private health care provider.
“We need to get the word out. … It needs to be on TV, radio, and social media that there is no stigma and that people who are HIV positive can live long, meaningful lives,” she said. “We have to make a change here.”
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.