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HIV Hot Spots in America

HIV Hot Spots in America

Picture of Mikaela Conley

“HIV is the face of the forgotten people in this country,” Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Atlanta-based AIDS expert, told me last February.

For most people in the United States, HIV/AIDS is something we've heard about, maybe learned about, but remain unaffected by. It is a preventable disease that has largely been eradicated in this country. Nevertheless, there continue to be "hot spots” in the U.S. where the disease thrives. Those areas are some of the most impoverished parts of major cities in the United States, including Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.

According to a CDC study published in February 2012, about 0.24 percent of African-American women in these HIV hot spots tested positive for the disease. That rate is five times higher than the CDC's previous estimate of HIV rates in black American women. The numbers are comparable to HIV rates found in the general population in many sub-Saharan African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (0.28 percent) and Kenya (0.53 percent).

More than 40 percent of those diagnosed with the illness during the CDC study had an annual household income of $10,000 or less.

The jarring findings acknowledge that HIV is an infection that has not been eradicated, but one that has been pushed into the depths of the United States where successful health policy and outreach programs have failed to reach.

About 1.2 million people in the U.S. are currently living with HIV, and about 20 percent of those people are unaware that they are carrying the infection, according to the CDC. One in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lifetime. Blacks continue to experience the highest increase in new cases and the most severe burden of the disease.

I will investigate these hot spots throughout this country to discover why this disease continues to flourish in concentrated areas, and what changes, both medical and social, must be implemented to eliminate the problem. What works and what doesn’t in HIV treatment and prevention today? I plan to examine and compare these communities with other high-risk areas that have successfully lowered the number of new HIV cases. The coverage will include written features, along with a photo and video documentation that capture Americans, including patients, family members and health care professionals, who have been affected by the disease.

HIV/AIDS is a purely preventable disease, but we can’t just “throw condoms at people and tell them to practice safe sex,” said Del Rio. Medical and social changes must be made in these communities to effectively implement successful solutions. Treatment and prevention efforts must be readily available and accessible to people in these communities  without stigma attached. Substance abuse treatment, job creation and education must be encouraged, along with legal partnerships that help HIV patients understand and fight for equal rights.

"I've had women look at me and say, 'OK, I'm at high risk for HIV, but I'm also at high risk of getting shot,’" Del Rio said.

This project encompasses the idea behind “Health and Place.” HIV/AIDS patients in these communities are directly affected by the place in which they live. Race and socioeconomic status are blatant determinants of HIV risk in the United States.

Stories will be published and broadcast through ABC News.

Stay tuned!

Image by Ted Eytan via Flickr

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