With HIV cases on rise, speakers educate LaFayette High students

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Chambers County has seen a “cluster” of HIV cases in the past few months with 22 new diagnoses of HIV being discovered in one month, according to the Unity Wellness Center representative Lakeshia Dowdell. 

Dowdell and Unity Wellness Center associate Mechelle Mitchell gave a presentation to LaFayette High students about HIV awareness and education at the PHYRE Let’s TACO Bout It event on Friday. 

People Helping Youth Reach Excellence (PHYRE) is a local youth program founded by LaFayette community member Adrian Holloway. The program partners with the community to provide education, resources and programs for youth of LaFayette. 

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During the PHYRE meeting, students learned facts about the transmission, treatment and stigma around HIV and AIDS. According to Dowdell, Alabama ranks 14th in the nation for AIDS and 16th for HIV. 

Chambers County Commissioner Debra Riley touched on the possibility of an HIV program at the county health and wellness center during the most recent county commission meeting. 

“We anticipate the health center being a constantly evolving healthcare center,” Riley said. 

Since the center’s opening, many community members have reached out to find out if there are healthcare resources available for people who are HIV positive.

“One thing that has been brought to our attention as a possible need in this county is working with HIV patients,” Riley said.

This healthcare issue is one of many that the County Commission, County Extension office and Auburn Rural Health Project hope to address in the future. 

According to the ADPH, Unity Wellness Center is one of two income-based HIV programs near Chambers County. Health Services Center (HSC) in Anniston and Unity Wellness in Opelika are both funded by the Ryan White HIV/AIDS federal program and are available to individuals around the state.

The Ryan White program is an HIV/AIDS program that funds healthcare access for low-income individuals with HIV, the Minority HIV/AIDS Fund and HIV/AIDS awareness. Ryan White became a household name for AIDS public education after he was diagnosed with AIDS at 13 years old due to a blood transfusion. He was given six months to live.

According to Dowdell, one of the most important factors in protecting against HIV and AIDS is health education and reducing the healthcare disparity in rural and low-income communities.  Dowdell said in the 1980s, the first cases of HIV/AIDS were reported in White males in New York and California.

One in 20 Black males and one in 48 Black females are at risk for contracting HIV in their lifetime. Whereas, one in 880 White females is at risk for HIV contraction. The reason for this is health care and education disparity. 

Part of health education is dispelling stereotypes and misinformation. 

“You never know who’s sitting next to you,” Dowdell said. “So you always want to make your conversation positive because you never know. You may be talking to somebody who’s HIV positive, and you just said something really bad about them.”

When White decided to return to school, he faced discrimination due to the stigma around the disease. He fought for his right to attend school and became nationally known. 

Recent conversations in the county have also centered around the fact that Chambers County has the highest rates of cervical cancer in the state. Alabama is the third-highest state for cervical cancer. 

“The center is constantly looking for partnerships that will solve problems, like cervical cancer,” Riley said.

The health and wellness center has hosted several healthcare screenings and events since its opening, including HIV screenings and speech and hearing tests. 

“A lot of this would not be taking place if we didn’t have the partnership with Auburn,” Riley said.