New Orleans — In the future, Dr. MarkAlain Déry wants to have the biggest names in the music business join him on stage for a mock mouth-swab HIV test. For now, he’s building a portfolio of photos of himself with local musicians and other celebrities swabbing their gums with a compact HIV tester that is comparable in simplicity and speed to a pregnancy test.
Tonight, he will host the Fourth annual HIV Awareness Music Project, an event to raise money for the Tulane T-Cell Clinic, which in coming months will provide HIV testing and treatment at the Ruth U. Fertel/Tulane Community Health Center that opened in March at its Broad Street location.
But the yearly concert is just as much about education and destigmatizing the disease as it is fundraising, said Déry, an assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at Tulane University.
Déry has a wealth of statistics, citing numbers like the fact that 20 percent of the people who are HIV positive are not aware of it.
Targeting those people is important, Déry said, because most people will stop engaging in risky behaviors as soon as they find out. In addition, people who are in the early stages of the disease have a high viral load, meaning that in that first year they are able to spread the disease more effectively, he said. Once detected and treated, the viral load can be decreased, thus decreasing the likelihood the disease will be spread.
Déry said the lack of realistic sex education is one of the biggest contributing factors for landing the New Orleans metro as No. 5 in the entire country for new AIDS cases, according to 2010 data released last spring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Baton Rouge metro area ranks as No. 1.
In Louisiana, Déry said the disease disproportionately effects African Americans. In 2011, figures from the state Department of Health and Hospitals showed that more than 70 percent of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS cases in Louisiana were among African Americans. Nationwide, Déry said newly diagnosed cases affect just 14 percent of African Americans, but HIV/AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death in African-American women between the ages of 25-40.
“It’s a completely preventable illness,” Déry said.
Figures also show that Louisiana ranks first in the country for the incidence of HIV among young people between the ages 13 and 24. Twenty-five percent of new HIV diagnoses fall in the same age range.
Déry said he is looking at data and making links between the number of young people diagnosed with HIV and the disproportionate effect on African Americans with states that mandate abstinence-only education in public schools.
Déry said the setting of a community center and a general health clinic that treats everyone, no matter their insurance status, will make the test more accessible to anyone concerned about costs or held back by the stigma attached to the disease.
The Tulane T-Cell Clinic is located in the ZIP code that has one of the highest incidence of new HIV cases in the entire state, Déry said. It operates within the community health center at 711 N. Broad St. and is funded under the Ryan White Care Act, which provides care for people with HIV/AIDS who are unable to afford it.
In May, Déry went before the state Legislature to make an impassioned but data-driven speech in favor of comprehensive sex education in public schools.
After his presentation, he said a woman identifying herself with a church told legislators that comprehensive sex education would lead to sexual slavery.
The bill requiring the teaching of sex education in public schools failed in the committee.
On Thursday, Déry said he had just finished a seven-day fast to bring awareness to the “oppressive abstinence-only laws that I believe are hurting young people and killing young people.”
Under current law, local school districts have the option of offering sex education classes, but it is not a requirement. In schools that do offer classes, the state mandates an abstinence-only curriculum.
For Déry, the primary message is “Get tested.” And if someone tests positive, he wants them to know there are places like the T-Cell Clinic where they can get treatment. In addition, Déry said he is very optimistic about the research being done on vaccines. There is “great treatment,” that exists, he said, and “a cure on the horizon.”
Déry, also a musician, will be playing Friday with Atomic Daddy-O, joined by several other local bands, burlesque dancers and Mardi Gras dancing troupes. The show is at 9 p.m. at One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St. Tickets are $15 at the door.