Deep South is ‘epicenter’ of HIV epidemic in America

Clarion Ledger

By Marni von Wilpert

Today is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and to honor it here in Mississippi, we need to dedicate ourselves to doing more to provide access to health care, housing and employment for people with HIV/AIDS.

This year marks the 13th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV, and while HIV/AIDS is pervasive throughout the country, Human Rights Watch calls the Deep South “the epicenter of the HIV epidemic in the United States, with more people living and dying of AIDS than in any region in the country.”

Mississippi ranks sixth in the nation for HIV/AIDS prevalence. African-Americans bear a disproportionate burden of HIV/AIDS in this state, as they make up 78 percent of new cases but only 37 percent of the state’s population. In Mississippi, 80 percent of women living with HIV/AIDS are African-American.

An HIV-positive diagnosis can many times be met with terrible stigma and discrimination that is not present with other long-term, manageable illnesses.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, friends, family and the medical community offer support. A diagnosis of HIV, on the other hand, can lead to hostile reactions from not only friends and family, but also employers, landlords and medical professionals.

Adding to this burden is the lack of legal services addressing the needs of people with HIV/AIDS.

Because HIV/AIDS is both a medical diagnosis and a social justice issue, the Mississippi Center for Justice is working to develop a solution to fill this crucial gap in legal services.

We are creating Mississippi’s first-ever Medical-Legal Partnership. The Medical-Legal Partnership model includes an attorney on-site at a doctor’s office or medical clinic to help bring doctors and lawyers together to identify and resolve the diverse legal issues that affect people with HIV/AIDS. Doctors in community-based clinics and legal services attorneys share the common goal of improving the health and well being of low-income, medically vulnerable patients.

The center has identified emerging legal issues among the HIV-positive community: housing discrimination, employment discrimination and discrimination in access to health care facilities, as well as breaches of patient confidentiality when their HIV status is revealed to family and friends without their consent.

By combining the efforts of doctors and lawyers, this medical-legal partnership will help ensure that the voices of the thousands of individuals living with HIV/AIDS in Mississippi are finally heard.

Many people have asked me why, as an attorney, am I focused on the HIV/AIDS crisis. Here’s my answer: The continuous discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS is one of the most serious civil rights issues of the 21st century, particularly in the way it affects people of color and people living in poverty.

That’s why I’m taking part in efforts to expand legal services to all Mississippians living with HIV/AIDS. I invite others to join us, too.

Marni von Wilpert is a staff attorney and Skadden Fellow with Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson.