HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The deep south has the highest rates of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in the country.
We typically think of HIV spreading quickly in big inner-cities. But as medical treatment is becoming more attainable in those large cities, that's no longer the case. Instead, it's becoming more of a problem in rural areas. According to new research, this means the battle against the HIV and AIDS epidemic is barely making any ground in the South, especially in South Carolina.
"The infection rate in SC and our area, has not changed a whole lot since the beginning of the epidemic," says Johanna Haynes. Haynes is the CEO of Careteam+ (http://careteamplus.org/), a local group providing medical and support services to uninsured clients living with HIV in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control in 2011, 1.2 million people are living in the U.S. with HIV. Compare that to the more than 15,000 people currently living with the disease in South Carolina. Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and the CDC analyzed the diagnosis and death rates of HIV and AIDS patients in nine "target" states in the Deep South, including: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Researchers found those states now account for nearly 50 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS, despite making up just 37 percent of the national population.
Haynes says in the research patients in these states tend to be younger and more often African-American, and that proves true in Grand Strand and Pee Dee counties. But in the study, many patients also attributed their infection to heterosexual transmission and had worse outcomes. "Who is being infected has changed some. Still the majority of people being infected by HIV are men who have sex with other men. But African-Americans and African-American women are disproportionately affected. They're accounting for over 70 percent of new infections," Haynes says.
South Carolina has the 9th highest rate of new HIV infections in the country. According to representatives at DHEC, 766 people are currently living with HIV in Horry County. But the most alarming discovery is how young these patients are – some as young as 13 to 19 years old. In fact, according to the CDC, in the state of South Carolina for young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, 55 out of every 100,000 are infected with HIV every year. That's one of the highest rates in the country.
"They're the ones going to be in the emergency room. They're the ones going to cost our state the most, because we didn't provide preventative care for them," says Haynes.
The reasons the Deep South is struggling to bring down diagnosis and death rates for HIV/AIDS are complicated -- but social stigma, poverty, rural geography, and lack of affordable healthcare likely play a role. Researchers say being a part of the "Bible Belt" adds to the stigma. So even if someone is diagnosed with HIV, they decide not to follow through with treatment because of the fear of being rejected in their religious community.
Federal funding for special programs is very limited. The leaders at CareTeam say they have been able to refer 500 percent more patients to specialized care thanks to the Affordable Care Act. But since South Carolina did not expand Medicaid, there are still so many patients who fall below 100 percent of poverty level who do not qualify for any help and end up suffering. "So the poorest of the poor are the ones who pay full price for premiums through the Exchange and have very high deductible. So without assistance, they can't afford it," says Haynes.
The study points out that the same southern states studied for HIV/AIDS rates often get the worst marks for a variety of other health issues, like diabetes. Researchers say patients in the South have the lowest five-year survival rate for new AIDS diagnoses in the country. Nearly a third of those diagnosed with AIDS died within five years of being told they were infected.