Richmond’s HIV rate among highest in U.S.

Richmond has one of the nation’s highest rates of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

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By Geoffrey A. Cooper and Ted Keefe | Capital News Service

Richmond has one of the nation’s highest rates of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city had 1,162 HIV-infected residents per 100,000 population. That was the 17th highest rate among the more than 2,300 U.S. localities that reported the diagnoses to the CDC’s database.

Richmond’s rate falls between those of Miami and St. Louis. Richmond has a lower rate than Baltimore and New Orleans, but a much higher rate than Dallas or Boston.

Richmond’s rate is a grim reminder that educators still have much work ahead of them.

“Most people, to this day, believe this will never happen to them,” said Greg Fordham, a MSM (men who have sex with men) coordinator at Access AIDS Care of Norfolk and Hampton, which serves individuals and families in Hampton Roads impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The CDC calculates a rate for every county in the United States (the agency treats Virginia’s independent cities like Richmond and Norfolk as counties). The rate indicates the number of people diagnosed with HIV for every 100,000 residents. The most recent county-level rates were calculated for 2010.

Fordham, who was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980s, said in a telephone interview that many individuals without HIV/AIDS have a common misconception: They think they can have unprotected sex as much as they want.

“A lot of times it has to do with once you’re young, and you get out (on your own), and you start delving into substances, people tend to let their inhibitions go and they just try different things,” Fordham said.

Denise Cooper, the HIV project coordinator for the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, said the response from her clients regarding prevention from HIV/AIDS is “50/50.”

“Some folks take it serious. Some folks take it more lightly,” she said.

“Now people are more comfortable with talking about HIV/AIDS. But a part of it, I think, is complacency, because we know people live longer and there are medications out there to treat people with less side effects…"

“We’ve come so far with treatments, and (people now diagnosed with HIV/AIDS) are living 30 years with it now, where back (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), you said, ‘HIV. They’re contagious. They’re going to die.’”

Richmond is not the only Virginia locality with a high HIV rate. Petersburg city ranks 12th in the country, with a rate just under 1,300.

Eight Virginia localities rank in the top 50 nationally for their rate of HIV/AIDS. Besides Richmond and Petersburg, they include:

  • Alexandria (22nd)
  • Norfolk (24th)
  • Greensville County (32nd)
  • Portsmouth (41st)
  • City of Fairfax (43rd)
  • Arlington County (49th)

The CDC also calculated HIV rates for 2010 for metropolitan areas and states. Among the 102 metro areas with more than 500,000 residents, Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News ranked No. 18, with about 740 HIV/AIDS cases were 100,000 residents. The Richmond metro area ranked No. 22, with a rate of 667 cases per 100,000 population.

Overall, Virginia’s rate was 306 per 100,000 population. That ranked 22nd among the 50 states.

Fordham said large numbers of young, black gay men infected with HIV/AIDS continue to appear in his coverage area. Fordham was appointed MSM coordinator at Access AIDS in 2009 to specifically address the growing problem within this community.

With the continuing surge of social media and Internet dating Web sites for this demographic, Fordham said he fears these groups of men run a higher risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS to others.

Fordham said he hopes Norfolk and Hampton city leaders will increase funding when it comes to HIV/AIDS awareness initiatives for his organization. Between $6 million and $7 million in federal funding was allocated to the entire Hampton Roads this fiscal year, which Fordham said is not enough to cover the area.

“We don’t have access to everything we need,” Fordham said. “We need to have more participation from local government…They think what we’re doing is great; however, it’s not the first thing on their agenda, so I’m kind of stuck with what I get.”

While health educators continue to ramp up efforts against HIV/AIDS, local ministries and churches have also entered the fight.

At Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Southside Richmond, clergy members like Lindsay Bryant are combining spiritual teachings with HIV/AIDS education through Nia Incorporated of Greater Richmond. Nia – Swahili for ‘purpose’ – operates through Saint Paul’s Baptist Church as an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention ministry.

The church is one of three organizations in Virginia to receive African-American Faith Initiative grant funding from the CDC. Bryant said the nonprofit has been awarded AAFI grant funding since 2007 to educate local church leaders on positive ways to discuss the topic of HIV/AIDS with members of their congregation.

“Sometimes Black churches are the last ones to get on board when it comes to talking about sex from the pulpit,” Bryant wrote in a recent blog posting from the Black AIDS Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Ministers do not want to talk from the pulpit about things they don’t know about, and I understand that…This (grant funding) allows them to do some of the same things at their faith institutions that our pastor has allowed us to do.”

Bryant, an outreach specialist and HIV/AIDS educator for Nia Incorporated for nearly 20 years, has worked with the nonprofit since 1995. Bryant said she recalls some initial HIV/AIDS outreach efforts through her mega church that included raising money to purchase red ribbons for World AIDS Day.

Yet, the awareness had to expand, said Bryant, upon discovering many of her church members either had or knew someone with HIV/AIDS. Through Nia Incorporated, the target groups are black men, age 18 and over, who have sex with women. Bryant’s teachings involve “keeping it real” conversations about safe sex, prevention, condom usage, self-esteem, peer pressure and discovering changes in one’s body.

“I know it’s going to be a challenge,” Bryant said. “There are people in groups willing to help and to make sure that the numbers go down.”

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photo by Patience Salgado

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