Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
An increasing number of African Americans in the city are living with HIV and AIDS. Here’s how Atlanta plans to reduce those numbers.
When Pope Francis visited the U.S. in September, CityLab made the case that he should add Atlanta to his tour, to address the escalating HIV/AIDS crisis there. He didn’t. But he did visit a hospital in Uganda this week, where he kissed babies infected with HIV. When asked by a journalist about whether the Catholic Church’s stance against condom use helps spread the virus, he said that HIV is a “small” concern compared to the problems of those who lack food, water, and shelter.
This is exactly why he needs to get to Georgia, where HIV and AIDS are heavily on people’s minds, especially those of African Americans, who made up two-thirds of all new diagnoses of the virus and disease in 2013. He might also want to come to Georgia to address the 33 percent of people living there who said in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that they believe HIV can be passed along through kissing—meaning a lot of Georgians could believe the Pope has AIDS from kissing the Ugandan babies.
There is a huge population of African Americans in Georgia living with HIV and AIDS, including many who don’t carry the virus or have the disease themselves. According to Kaiser, half of the black Georgians surveyed personally knew someone who died of HIV or AIDS compared with 30 percent of white Georgians. For those who personally know someone living with or who has died of HIV or AIDS, the number climbs to 59 percent of black Georgians compared to 40 percent of whites. Over a quarter of black Georgians reported to Kaiser having a family member with HIV or AIDS compared to just 5 percent of whites.
The strongest concentration of HIV/AIDS cases in Georgia—which has the second-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses among all states—are found in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, which are all at least partially covered by Atlanta, the metro with the fifth-highest HIV rate among all major U.S. cities. The virus is the leading cause of death for African-American men between the ages of 35 and 44 in the state.
The Fulton County HIV/AIDS Taskforce unveiled a new strategy on December 1 for dealing with the disease and its accompanying racial disparities. It aims to cut through stigma and misinformation and to deliver more routine HIV testing in schools, clinics, and jails. Condoms are no small part of the strategy, with the county setting a goal of distributing as many as 3.5 million of them per year.
One of the major corrections the county is making in its new strategy is a fix for its HIV/AIDS funding apparatus. As CityLab reported in September, Fulton County had to forfeit millions of dollars in federal HIV grant money due to lack of sound infrastructure for administering the funds. The county had to suspend some of its HIV clinical services last year due to funding problems. The task force acknowledged its failures in its report, which reads:
From 2012 to 2014, FCDHW was a very poor steward of federal HIV prevention monies awarded to it by CDC. In Year 1 of the PS12-1201 contract, FCDHW spent only 28% of its allocated funds, leaving $3.6 million unspent. In Year 2 of the contract, an additional $2.4 million was unspent (35% of allocated funding). While some of this funding was recaptured as carryover funding, several million dollars were reallocated to the core budget in Year 4, supplanting new funding and constituting a loss of funds that otherwise would have been awarded to Fulton County.
The task force says it is “increasing focus on structural impediments” to distributing funds, and this year began replacing the leadership that flubbed up the finances. The task force is also addressing issues including income disparities, food insecurity, and incarceration—all of which exacerbate health disparities.
As is the case with incarceration, HIV and AIDS transmission affects far more people than just the diagnosed individual. Families and communities are affected as well, and for African Americans, HIV becomes one more social ill to add to racism, poverty, and violence. In light of Charlie Sheen’s much-discussed announcement of his HIV status, and the AIDS-related death of rapper Eazy-E revisited in Straight Outta Compton, it’s clear that we’ve learned to talk about this issue in better ways than we did in the ‘80s. Now, health officials have to learn to put the money where the problems are.