HIV in Baton Rouge

 I tested HIV positive 12 years ago and immediately went on medication. For the last ten of those 12 years, I have tested ‘HIV-Undetectable.’ I think we need more education and less stigma surrounding HIV. It is not the ‘disease’ it once was in the 80s. It is more manageable, and people are living long, healthy lives with the HIV virus,” shares a local resident with HIV who believes that work to remove the stigma once associated with HIV is a step in the right direction.

However, in 2017, Louisiana had the third highest HIV diagnosis in the United States. In 2015, Baton Rouge ranked second for estimated HIV case rates among the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. 

Sometimes, it might seem easier to look the other way and say, “That’s not my problem.” Although it might not be your problem directly, it very well may be a problem that your friend, neighbor, or co-worker is silently battling. Author Anthony J. D’Angelo says, “Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.” It’s time we take a closer look at how HIV impacts our community and the ways we can help our friends and neighbors who are living with HIV.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health Quarterly Report from March 2018, there are approximately 5,380 people currently living with HIV/AIDS in Metro Baton Rouge. While the Baton Rouge Area Foundation reports that the number of new cases of HIV is at the lowest it has been in two decades, Baton Rouge still remains one of the highest ranked cities for new cases. 

It’s been over 30 years since HIV was first defined, but the virus isn’t going away. In 2017, 1,035 new HIV cases were diagnosed in Louisiana, with about 21 percent of these coming from Baton Rouge. The majority of new HIV diagnoses are among persons ages 15-34 years old. HIV continues to disproportionately affect African-Americans in Louisiana. In fact, in 2017, 73 percent of the new diagnoses were African-American. This is six times higher than Caucasians and two times higher than Hispanics. The statistics are staggering, but they may serve as a wake up call for parents as to why this is such an important issue to everyone in our community. As parents, the best thing that you can do is to educate yourself first, so that you can then work to educate the next generation.


How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted in specific ways such as: having unprotected sex, sharing needles, and less commonly, transferring from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Meta Smith Davis of HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two (HAART) suggests that when educating our children, it is equally important to dispel myths and teach them how HIV is not transmitted. HIV cannot be transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, or closed-mouth “social” kissing with someone who is HIV positive. It is not transmitted through saliva, tears, or sweat that is not mixed with the blood of an HIV positive person. It cannot be transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, or other blood-sucking insects, and it is not transmitted through the air.


Why is Baton Rouge one of the highest ranked places? How can we change this? 

Smith-Davis believes that the primary reason we continue to rank with the highest numbers is about stigma. “Unless we address not only the basic stigmas about HIV, but also the stigmas related to the kinds of sex that puts folks at risk, as well as intravenous drug use, we will continue to have those numbers,” says Smith-Davis. 

Rev. AJ Johnson, Founder of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society, attributes Baton Rouge’s high numbers to three things: lack of education, lack of access to free screening, and lack of involvement in the community. “In the 80s, it was common to see individuals fighting and marching for AIDS prevention and patient rights. Now that it’s not the ‘in’ thing, no one wants to get involved,” says Rev. Johnson. He believes community involvement would help, and he encourages people to volunteer, donate, and most importantly, for everyone to know their own HIV status. Knowing your status is crucial.


How important is HIV testing?

If you have placed yourself at risk for HIV, the only way to tell you are infected is from an HIV test. Rev. Johnson says HIV testing is critical, and the most important thing everyone can do is know their own HIV status, otherwise you are part of the problem. With the testing available today, you can get results within 20 minutes.


Are children HIV positive in our community?

According to Robert Johannessen at the Louisiana Department of Health, there are less than 20 children in the Baton Rouge area living with HIV. Thankfully, this number is small, however, part of eliminating the stigmas associated with HIV starts with the children. 

“Kids living with HIV are still just kids, you treat them all the same,” says Smith-Davis. When age-appropriate, parents can educate their children about this, and assure them that if there is an accident with a child at school, standard universal precautions that are in place at school should help prevent the need for any special precautions. 

According to Smith-Davis, schools will not notify other parents, and parents need only disclose their child’s status if they want to or if there is a specific reason the school would need to know. 

Children living with HIV in our community may receive outpatient, family-centered primary and specialty medical care through Part D of the Federal Ryan White Program, according to Sholanda Bradley, Director of HIV Services for Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge.


What happens to a baby who is born with HIV?

When a baby is born from an infected mother, the baby is considered exposed to HIV. Bradley says these babies go through a series of tests, and receive a medication called Zidovudine (Retrovir) within 6-12 hours after birth. “This combined with other medications when necessary, protects the babies from infection with any HIV that may have passed from mother to child during childbirth. The use of these medications and other strategies before and after childbirth have greatly reduced the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Since breastfeeding is one of the ways HIV is transmitted, mothers who are HIV positive should never breastfeed. 

Johannessen says the current advice from the AIDSInfo Panel on Treatment of Pregnant Women with HIV Infection and Prevention of Perinatal Transmission is that women still wishing to breastfeed should receive patient-centered, evidence-based counseling on infant feeding options.


What resources are available?

The Baton Rouge AIDS Society offers free HIV, Syphilis, Hepatitis C, Pregnancy, and Glucose screenings throughout the community through their mobile testing unit. They also offer educational programs both on site and via “Home Health Parties,” where they can come into your home to educate you and your family about safe practices and prevention. HAART also provides free HIV and STD testing. Their wellness clinic offers free testing for Same Gender Loving (SGL) men of color and the Transgender community. They also work to educate the community on the importance of testing, and they even participate in community events whenever they are needed.


How can the community help?

All of our experts agreed that the best thing we can do as a community is to talk about it. Encourage conversations with your friends and family members about sexual health. Include your physician in this conversation, and be sure that you know your own status. Look for opportunities for you and your family to volunteer. You will be helping to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, while also educating yourselves on an issue that greatly impacts our community. ■

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