In 2017, Southern states accounted for more than half of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drilling further into the numbers, Charlotte has approximately 6,517 people living with HIV. People of color are three-quarters of that population.
Solita Jefferies knows all too well the health disparities impacting minority communities. It’s front and center in her work as a patient navigator for Mecklenburg County’s health department. In her role, Jefferies links newly diagnosed HIV patients to medical care. She says they’re generally those who are uninsured or underinsured.
“Over the last 15 years, I’ve been connected professionally — or at least at the volunteer level — to the advocacy around HIV,” says the 29-year-old Gastonia native who started volunteering at the Gaston County Health Department when she was in high school. “I stuck with it because it continues to be people who look like me, and come from places where I’ve come from, who carry the biggest burden of the HIV disease. People who look like me, even with advanced medication, still die from this disease.”
Jefferies’ advocacy around HIV/AIDS awareness was recognized in 2016 at The Red Pump Project’s annual Red Pump/Red Tie Affair. The event, which commemorated World AIDS Day, honored Jefferies with its Red Pump Award.
World AIDS Day
Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, an international day dedicated to raising awareness and money to fight the AIDS pandemic. Jefferies shared three ways that everyone can play a role in spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Keep the conversation going
“I’ve had to tell someone their HIV-positive status. I’ve been with people in their doctor’s appointments,” Jefferies said. “There are people who believe that we no longer have an epidemic because it’s not discussed the way it was in the 80s and early 90s. But we do, and it’s critically important, particularly for those most vulnerable in our population.”
She also notes that correcting people’s misinformation can reduce the stigma that leads to discrimination.
“When we engage in these conversations, we need to be sure that we’re speaking about HIV from a fact-based standpoint.”
Know your status
Knowing your HIV status is critical to protecting your health. The CDC recommends anyone who is sexually active or shares drug needles should get tested annually. Jefferies says that society needs to continue to normalize HIV testing. Testing can take place at your annual medical visit, your local health department or at a free community event.
Educate yourself about prevention and resources
The more you know about HIV/AIDS, the more likely you are to help limit it. One preventative is the drug PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis.
“PrEP is extremely important because it’s a pill that people can take once a day to help prevent getting HIV, much like a birth control pill,” Jefferies said.
Mecklenburg County Health Department cites that the pill can greatly reduce risk of HIV from sex by more than 90 percent and the risk from sharing needles by more than 70 percent. Through contracts with community partners, the health department began a two-year PrEP pilot project to provide the pill to at least 320 high-risk, uninsured individuals.
“I want folks to realize that health care and access to health care are all wrapped up in what keeps me passionate about HIV and social justice issues. Because, this is a social justice issue,” Jefferies concluded.
Katrina Louis is managing editor of qcitymetro.com who can always find something to do in Charlotte. She’s an offline hustler (and has the shirt to prove it) but when online, find her on Instagram and Twitter.