For years, Atlanta has been facing an HIV epidemic, one Dr. Carlos del Rio told the AJC was “as bad” as some third world countries. For a number of reasons, our Southern and developed metropolis has been afflicted with this disease — reasons such as social issues like homelessness and unemployment, as well as the discrimination and stigma that just can’t seem to be tackled.
More than 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, with a disproportionate number living in the South, according to HIV.gov. In 2017, 38,739 people were diagnosed with HIV — 19,968 were Southerners. Of these Southern states, Georgia and her capital stand out. That same year, 37,155 Atlantans were living with HIV, says AIDSVu, with 1,597 being diagnosed that year — a five-year high for the city. In 2015, Georgia was #4 in the nation for HIV diagnoses, following New York, Maryland, and Florida.
Georgia’s HIV problem is an intersectional one, with race and sexual orientation heavily influencing infection. About 35 percent of Atlanta’s population is black. However, this group makes up 70 percent of those living with HIV in Atlanta. To be considered an epidemic, the CDC requires that 1 percent of the population is affected; 4 percent of black men in Fulton County are living with HIV. 67 percent of those infected are gay and bisexual men, 83 percent of whom are black.
HIV isn’t alone; STIs are also continually getting worse in Atlanta. An analysis of CDC data by Health Testing Centers found that, from 2016 to 2017, cases of chlamydia in Georgia increased by about 7 percent, gonorrhea by 19 percent, and syphilis by 15 percent. Fulton and DeKalb Counties both ranked in the top five in the country for rates of syphilis, with Fulton County coming in at #3 with 41.4 cases per 100,000 people and DeKalb at #5 with 38 per 100,000.
How do we address this problem, this epidemic? How do we as a state and city move away from these disproportionately high levels of HIV? Increasing availability to PrEP — which Derick Wilson, a member of the Fulton County Board of Infectious Disease, told the Georgia Signal can be out of reach for many affected by unemployment or homelessness – as well as increasing access to healthcare can help end the epidemic.
However, raising awareness and curbing stigma around getting tested is one of the simplest and most effective solutions — 1 in 7 people living with HIV don’t even know it. Increasing the number of people tested can increase treatment and decrease further infection. However, with the stigma surrounding HIV and STIs, it’s no easy feat, Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality told the Georgia Signal.
“We need to create a safe space for folks to be able to self-disclose their HIV status,” he said. “To recognize this isn’t a judgement from God, it is not a condemnation of a certain lifestyle, it is not about bad choices — it is a human condition, a medical condition. We need to address issues such as sex shaming in general, the attitudes towards gay and bisexual men and especially gay and bisexual men of color who feel they have multiple layers of oppression that they have to deal with.”