Not long after Baton Rouge resident Meta Smith-Davis contracted HIV in 2001, she made it her mission to help others avoid the same fate.
“I was disappointed in myself,” said Smith-Davis, 60, now a prevention specialist with the national organization AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “No one has to get HIV. There are ways to prevent it.”
She was among the speakers Sunday at the first Cupcakes and Condoms for HIV/AIDS Awareness event hosted by the Baton Rouge nonprofit Butterfly Kisses Organization.
Both HIV and AIDS have an especially strong foothold in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area, which in 2014 ranked second in the per capita rate of new AIDS cases and fourth in the per capita rate of new HIV cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
AIDS is the full-blown disease, and HIV is the virus that you can have without developing AIDS.
“HIV goes from Yale to jail, from the White House to the crack house,” Smith-Davis told a room of nearly 50 people at the Baton Rouge Parish Main Library. “It doesn’t matter who you are.”
Panelists examined the factors that drive the stigmatization of HIV, from religious and cultural values to ignorance of sexually transmitted diseases.
Alma Stewart, president and founder of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, said members of the black community often suffer the consequences of HIV because of misconceptions surrounding the virus.
“Initially this was a disease of gay, white men and a lot of African Americans think they’re safe because they don’t belong to that demographic,” she said.
Those kinds of misconceptions underscore the importance of getting tested, Stewart said, because symptoms may not appear for years.
“The sooner you know your status and the sooner you get treatment, the better the outcome,” she said.
After the panel, attendees could ask questions and voice their opinions on matters including the appropriate time to tell family and friends about a positive HIV diagnosis.
The event also offered on-site HIV testing, where attendees could learn their status in just a few minutes.
Mariah Higginbotham, who founded the Butterfly Kisses Organization when she was in high school, began organizing the event after seeing the effects HIV had on Baton Rouge’s low-income communities.
“The stigma comes from not being educated, and I wanted to do something about that,” she said.
Hailee Fourcade, 17, of Brookhaven, Mississippi, was in Baton Rouge for the weekend to attend the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade and learned about the HIV awareness event on Facebook.
She said it drew her attention because she volunteers at Safe Schools Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Part of that involves teaching best practices for sexual health, she said.
“If people’s parents didn’t get good sex education and they don’t teach it in schools, then it’s an endless cycle of no one knowing how to protect themselves,” she said.
While a discussion about HIV/AIDS dominated the event, there was a cupcake taste testing at the end.
Smith-Davis said events like the one Sunday provide a platform to destigmatize HIV and demonstrate that life goes on after a positive diagnosis.
“Those of us with HIV have to stand up and not let anyone tell us we don’t matter,” she said. “I’m going to stay in this fight until they cover me up.”
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.