Staff at the AIDS Services Coalition of Hattiesburg said there is no excuse to not get tested.
On Feb. 5, the ASC worked in the R.C. Cook Union to administer free tests. Those who took the test received a ticket to attend Rita Brent’s comedy show at Southern Miss on Feb. 7, which is National Black HIV Awareness Day.
Outreach manager for ASC, Natasha Thomas orchestrated the entire event in collaboration with the Moffitt Health Center, Office of Multicultural Programs and Services and other groups.
Thomas said the ASC’s main job is to stop stigmatization and to provide HIV awareness to decrease HIV rates in Mississippi, because the statistics are troubling.
“African-Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population. In 2018 we accounted for 42% of the new cases which was 37,000,” Thomas said.
When asked why African-American males make up a high number of HIV and AIDS cases, Thomas discussed how polarizing expressing sexuality can still be.
“The main thing is the stigma. There is a lot of people who are uncomfortable with their gender identity. Some people can’t say they’re gay or bisexual so they’re living a double life. That’s why those numbers are increasing the way they are. I think that if the people had a more open mind and gay males felt comfortable I believe that the HIV rates would decrease,” Thomas said.
Kourtney Harris, a senior psychology major, says sex education is not good in Louisiana either. Harris came from Lafayette before coming to school at Southern Miss.
“Sex education was taught to me in seventh grade. It didn’t really seem to have an effect on us as a class as people were still not really being safe. Sex in the black community is different for males and females. Women are taught to save themselves, but men are taught to ‘be men’ and be masculine when it comes to sex,” Harris said.
Thomas said the discussion of sex education in public schools doesn’t help the statistics. With the state-approved plan for an abstinence-plus curriculum, younger audiences are at risk of contracting the disease.
“They’re not taught at all. That’s the problem. That’s why Mississippi is No.1 in teen pregnancy and gonorrhea and No.3 in chlamydia and syphilis. I think if we were able to get into the school system, that would play a major role in teen pregnancy, STDs and HIV rates,” she said.
Common symptoms people can experience can be flu-like such as fevers, sore throats and fatigue, but for others there can be no symptoms until it develops into AIDS which is why Thomas advises everyone to be tested at least once a year.
Rita Brent said it is her duty to perform for the cause and raise awareness.
“Just telling jokes is not enough for me. I want to be impactful and contribute to the betterment of society,” she said.“I’m black. I’m not removed from the situation since I’m not affected.”
Additional services ASC provides are housing for men and women who live with HIV and AIDS, with additional for women leaving domestic relationships, a food pantry and a program called “Safety Delivered” which will send condoms to your home via mail anonymously in the state of Mississippi.
Testing is always free at ASC, which is located on 103 Broad St. They can be contacted at 601-329-2425 for additional information, volunteering and seminar requests.