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World AIDS Day serves as reminder that the southern U.S. is a major source of new HIV infections

David Floyd • Dec 1, 2015 at 10:24 PM

More than 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and about 1 in 4 new HIV infections occur among youths ages 13 to 24, according to AIDS.gov.

These are sobering statistics — especially when evaluated in the context of the southern United States, where a lack of access to health care has made the region a major epicenter for HIV infection. 

“We’re also in the category of being a more rural region,” said Karl Goodkin, chairman of the psychiatry department at the East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine. “Another change in the epidemic that has occurred in recent years has been that rural HIV infection has become a major source of the spread of HIV.”

Tuesday marked World AIDS Day, a day of remembrance that occurs each year on Dec. 1, and offered area health educators the chance to communicate with local people about the persistent dangers presented by the virus.

HIV is a seemingly permanent condition that attacks specific cells in the body’s immune system. AIDS occurs once a certain number of cells have been damaged, leaving the body open to opportunistic infections — common infections that take advantage of the body’s weakened immune system.

The HIV/AIDS Center of Excellence at ETSU, a medical clinic run through the university that also focuses on HIV-related research, sees about 450 patients. Most of the center’s patients are men between the ages of 40 and 60, but the center has witnessed a significant increase in the number of infected college-aged males.

East Tennessee State University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs arranged free testing to students Tuesday on the third floor of the D.P. Culp University Center. Health educators with HOPE for Tennessee, a division of Frontier Health, swabbed the inside of students’ mouths using an OraQuick kit to test for HIV.

While blood tests usually take about 10 days to finalize, the OraQuick usually takes only 20 minutes to return results and has 99.3 percent accuracy. Despite its high accuracy, however, OraQuick is still considered a pre-screening measure, and anyone who tests positive for the virus still needs to receive confirmation through a blood test.

“Even though HIV and AIDS have been around for 30 years, in the last 5 to 10 we’ve gotten complacent because there are a lot of new medications,” said Vicki Trammell, a health educator with HOPE for Tennessee, “and some of the younger people, even though this is happening in their lifetime, they haven’t seen their friends die, and they don’t understand that the risk is still there like some people in older populations.”

Men who have sex with other men are the most seriously affected by HIV. Although they represent only 4 percent of the male population in the U.S., the population accounted for 63 percent of all new infections in 2010.

Blacks also make up a disproportionate percentage of the infected population and accounted for about 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, despite making up 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Justin McClinton, an ETSU junior and a black male, received a test Tuesday and said he believes everyone should be tested for the virus.

“I think the biggest problem is most people think it can’t affect them,” McClinton said. “They say, ’Well, I don’t sleep with guys, so it isn’t going to affect me,’ or ’I don’t sleep with black people so it’s not going to affect me.’ There’s certain demographics that have the highest percentage of HIV infection, but everyone can get it.” 

Goodkin said experts recommend that people receive at least one HIV screening in their lifetime.

“It’s not just education that’s driving the continued sources of cases — it’s stigma,” Goodkin said, identifying HIV risk groups like men who have sex with men as common sources of stigma. “The degree of stigma in the South is quite high, and the stigma prevents people from following risk precautions before contracting HIV.”

Caregivers believe rural regions, particularly in the South, should improve their capacity to provide care to people with HIV.

“Although many people think the U.S. has the epidemic ’under control,’ I don’t think the numbers really reflect that,” Goodkin said.

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