It’s disgraceful and tragic that Baton Rouge now has the highest rate of HIV infections in the United States. This crisis must be addressed immediately.
Being first in cases of a fatal but preventable disease is a distinction that no community should tolerate. While the actual number of HIV infected people is fortunately small, it’s clear that Baton Rouge has a problem that must be solved for the good of the entire community.
According to the Louisiana Commission on HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, 74 percent of new HIV patients in Baton Rouge are black. Whatever the actual numbers of infected people, a racial disparity of such enormous proportion, particularly where lives are at stake, is inexcusable.
Baton Rouge ranks first, New Orleans fifth in the country in new HIV/AIDS cases. Until Louisiana recognizes the need for real education about sexually transmitted diseases and provides safe and sanitary exchanges of hypodermic syringes, we will continue to rank high on this list of shame. HIV status must be destigmatized so that people will seek help once they are infected. Prevention information must be readily available to everyone in the community.
Treatment is difficult and expensive; prevention is free as long as information and resources are available. We can save lives both now and in the future simply by making sure that people have accurate information and the resources they need to protect themselves and others.
Obviously the old approach hasn’t worked. Baton Rouge is first. New Orleans is fifth. Seventy-four percent of new HIV patients in Baton Rouge are African American. We can change the course of this tragedy only if we confront it directly, and only if we commit to prevention. The conversation must start now. We can’t wait any longer.
Marjorie Esman, executive director
ACLU of Louisiana