By Joel Hall
On Monday, Stephanie Behel, an HIV/AIDS expert from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control, gave a presentation on the disease to an auditorium full of students at Clayton State University in the wake of World AIDS Day, which was Dec. 1.
Behel, who has implemented HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Kenya and Uganda, said that while the international community has made tremendous strides in combating new cases of HIV/AIDS in the last few years, some of the most vulnerable to the disease are right here in the southern United States.
According to Behel's presentation, the largest number of people living in the United States with HIV/AIDS live in the South, with African-American males and females being the most vulnerable demographic groups. She said that black men are being infected with HIV seven times more often than their white counterparts, and black females are contracting the disease at a rate of twenty times that of white females.
"These numbers are really alarming," said Behel. "We've seen a steady increase ... it's not like it just happened over night."
Behel said while the highest number of new HIV/AIDS cases in America are in blacks followed by Hispanics, more research is needed to find out why. "One of the things we've studied is 'Are [blacks and Hispanics] more risky, '" said Behel.
"We haven't found that African-American men or women, or Hispanic men or women are more likely to have unprotected sex or have more partners, so that is not accounting for it. It's really one of those questions that we haven't been able to answer, and we are doing a lot of studies to find out why."
Until a vaccine is found, education, prevention and treatment programs are the most effective way of stemming new HIV infections, Behel said.
Shel noted that the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) -- a five-year, $15 billion initiative toward AIDS prevention programs worldwide -- is the largest monetary commitment any government has made to fighting one disease. From its inception in 2003, the program has increased the number of infected individuals worldwide receiving treatment, from two percent to 66 percent.
Caroline Richards, a registered nurse at the Clayton State University Nurse Managed Clinic, said that one of the best ways to stem new cases of HIV/AIDS was to get people tested and to make that testing easily accessible.
For that reason, earlier this year, the clinic expanded its services to include on-campus testing for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Richard's said that until this school year, the clinic was "a Band-Aid stop," which would refer students to the Department of Health for anything other than standard vaccinations. Now, the center has a full staff of registered nurses and nurse practitioners and can test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV).
"We're here now, and we can do it anytime," said Richards. "All they have to do is make an appointment."