|Williamson, West Virginia.|
Rural America has many problems facing it ranging from economic decline to scarce access to medical facilities to a mindset that in some that embraces ignorance and bigotry. Now, as a column in the New York Times makes clear, some parts of rural America, including much of neighboring West Virginia is about to face an HIV crisis that it is ill prepared to deal with largely due to closed mindedness, the stigma attached to being gay and/or HIV positive and lack of access to progressive testing and medical treatment. Much of the increase in HIV positive residents come from drug use and shared needles yet, rather adopting policies that might reverse the trend, many localities are shuttering programs that might stem increased infections. Here are highlights from a very troubling column:
While there are still about a million people living with H.I.V. in the United States, in some of America’s largest cities, the news about H.I.V. and AIDS is surprisingly positive.
“New H.I.V. Diagnoses Fall to Historic Lows,” the New York City Department of Health announced on Nov. 22, reporting that the largest city in the United States had fewer new diagnoses of H.I.V. in 2018 than during any year since statistics were first kept in 2001. This was just a few weeks after Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health reported a 14 percent drop in the number of newly diagnosed H.I.V. infections overall, and a drop of more than one-third among black men who have sex with men — an especially vulnerable population.
San Francisco and Chicago have also seen their rates of new H.I.V. infections falling.
[I]n much of rural America, an opposite trend is emerging. There have of course always been cases of H.I.V. in sparsely populated parts of the country, but in these places far from cities, the conditions that lead to H.I.V. transmission are now intensifying — and rural America is not ready for the coming crisis.
Indeed, in Appalachian West Virginia, the crisis has already arrived. A cluster of 80 new H.I.V. infections has been diagnosed since early last year in Cabell County.
Unlike large urban areas that have dealt with similar health and substance crises in the past, and that have networks of service providers and consumers in place, small rural health jurisdictions often lack the infrastructure to confront the crisis and have little history of dealing with comparable health issues, she explained.
[W]hen prescription highs can’t be sustained, people often turn to using — and sharing — needles to inject heroin and then fentanyl, leading to hepatitis C and H.I.V. This avoidable crisis has been exacerbated by unemployment, declining coal mining production and economic pressures on regional press to act as effectively as a watchdog.
At the same time, health care is relatively inaccessible. “It’s not so easy to get to the nearest town to see a doctor,” Dr. Judith Feinberg, professor of medicine at West Virginia University, explained, pointing to a lack of transportation and stigma as the biggest barriers to testing and care. People living with H.I.V. are stigmatized everywhere, but those who live in large cities can get tested while feeling relatively anonymous in a clinic in ways rural dwellers cannot.
[T]he C.D.C. released a list of 220 counties similarly vulnerable to such outbreaks among people who use intravenous drugs. The densest concentration of those counties is along the Appalachian Trail, with 28 of them in West Virginia — more than half of the state’s 55 counties.
“There is no way that doesn’t wind up as an H.I.V. outbreak in the state,” Ms. Young says. Yet unlike in places like New York — with its comprehensive sex education; efforts at queer- and trans-specific public health; embrace of public syringe exchanges; and what its health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, describes as a “sex positive approach” — when it comes to confronting its H.I.V. epidemic, rural America is ill-prepared at best and antagonistic at worst.
[D]espite research showing that syringe programs are effective at limiting transmission of H.I.V. and encouraging people to enter drug treatment, two cities in West Virginia — Clarksburg and Charleston — have recently moved to close or limit their needle-exchange programs. Negative press, business worries and conservative approaches are among the reasons the programs have been reduced when they urgently need to be expanded (along with statewide testing and education about preventive H.I.V. medication).
While it’s true that people who are black, queer, transgender, homeless, incarcerated or poor, or who use injection drugs, are disproportionately affected by H.I.V. and AIDS, the misguided impression that members of these groups are the only ones affected has unfortunately contributed to the media’s choice to deprioritize coverage of H.I.V. and AIDS in recent years.
Meanwhile, the rural, heterosexual white Americans who have been the subject of countless national profiles because they’re imagined — incorrectly — to represent all of President Trump’s supporters, are more at risk all the time. But while we’re bombarded by analyses of many aspects of their plight, we don’t hear about this crisis facing them.
[T]he new major terrain of the crisis right now is in rural America, and it can’t be ignored any longer.