HIV/AIDS testing touted Monday at Rapides Parish Health Unit

By Bill Sumrall
EverythingCenla

A celebrity activist assisted state and local public health workers promote HIV testing Monday at the Rapides Parish Health Unit.

“I’m real excited about participating in the event. I think it’s so important that we get the message out around HIV testing and how important it is to know your status,” said Sonya Renee.

Renee is an AIDS activist, spoken word artist and National Poetry SLAM winner as well as author of a collection of poems titled “A Little Truth on Your Shirt” and is an HBO Def Poet.

“There was definitely a time when HIV was a death sentence and people were afraid to know but that is not the case anymore. To know your status is to stay healthier and live longer, both ways, whether you turn out positive or your test comes out negative,” Renee said.

“So, it’s so important for people to get the word out and I am excited to lend whatever energy I can to that effort,” Renee said.

Renee performed several poems during the “Test 1 Million Louisiana Celebrity Tour” stop-over June 28 in Alexandria. Members of the Sigma Alpha Tau step team from Lafayette, also performed.

Seven informational booths urged HIV testing. One was an exhibit titled “Crowns of Glory,” displaying hats honoring women who died or are living with HIV/AIDS.

Also, Kay Michiels, the city of Alexandria’s chief operating officer, read aloud a proclamation signed by Mayor Jacques Roy in recognition of the 16th annual National HIV Testing Day held Sunday, June 27.

Mayor Roy later put in an appearance himself during the tour’s stop at the health unit. “It’s very important that we continue to be vigilant about recognizing these problems,” the mayor said.

“They exist in every community but we have our fair share here and we have to remain prepared to deal with those issues as they arise,” Roy said, who also thanked Central Louisiana AIDS Support Services (CLASS) executive director Ann Lowrey for her group’s service.

CLASS set up one of the seven informational booths Monday at the parish health unit and, according to Lowrey, had tested close to 60 people Friday, June 25, to mark the 16th annual National HIV Testing Day.

“We tested a lot of people who really needed to be tested, so it was a big success,” Lowrey said.

Testing is free, confidential and easy, as two state Office of Public Health workers demonstrated by gathering saliva by swabbing the inside of the mouth for one test and drawing a blood sample by pricking a finger for another test.

“That’s the thing about early detection of HIV. If you know early, there are treatments available that will help you live a long and normal, healthy life, and so it’s a good idea to know,” Lowrey said.

“Sticking your head in the sand is not the best option when it comes to HIV, so I would encourage people to get tested,” Lowrey said.

Charlie Baran, director of programs for the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Black AIDS Institute, said this is the first year they’ve tried the concept of the tour, which the state Office of Public Health helped co-sponsor.

“In April, we did a tour in Ohio and went to five cities there,” Baran said.

After Alexandria, the tour’s next stop is Lake Charles, then on to Opelousas, Baton Rouge and, finally, New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival on July 2 to July 4.

“They’ll be doing free testing at the Convention Center for anybody who is there for the Essence Music Festival,” said Jack Carrel.

Carrel is prevention program manager for the Office of Public Health’s HIV/AIDS program in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

“Alexandria at this point is fairly low,” Carrel said, referring to the number of HIV/AIDS cases in this area compared to other areas in the state.

“I think the important message for this area is, because rates are low here, this is the time to get tested, learn how to protect yourself, so that the rates stay low here,” Carrel said.

“There are 800 people who are living with HIV in this area and so it’s still a big issue here in Alexandria, and the state as a whole,” Carrel said.

As of Dec. 31, 2008, the Office of Public Health reports a cumulative total of 28,676 persons have been diagnosed with HIV infection in Louisiana, including 312 cases in children under the age of 13.

The emphasis of the tour was on getting black males tested.

In all regions of Louisiana, the percentage of persons living with HIV/AIDS who are black is significantly higher than the percentage of the general population that is black, according to information provided by Office of Public Health personnel.

In Louisiana, the HIV case rate for blacks is almost seven times higher than the HIV case rate for whites.

Dr. David J. Holcombe, regional administrator/medical director of Region VI of the state Office of Public Health, Region VI, said Louisiana used to place fifth in the nation in the rates of HIV/AIDS cases but has moved up to fourth place.

“We’re even worse than that in syphilis and gonorrhea and so this is a big problem, and unfortunately it’s disproportionally a problem in the minority community,” Holcombe said.

“So this is something that needs to be discussed at every dinner table, every school and every church,” Holcombe said.

“It’s not a gay, white disease — most people who are infected now are black heterosexual women. That’s our biggest number of increase in new cases,” Holcombe said.

“Everyone needs to be tested. Ignorance is not bliss and silence is not golden. This is an epidemic and we need to work on it aggressively,” Holcombe said.

More information is available online at http://www.HIV411.org or by calling toll-free 1-800-99-AIDS-9 (1-800-992-4379). Another on-line resource can be found at http://www.greaterthan.org.

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