Opinion Extra

Op-ed: Let’s end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the SC

In the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the early 1980s, people rightly feared the diagnosis as a death sentence. Today, HIV/AIDS is easier to treat than other chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. But most people don’t know that, which is partly why the crisis continues.

Recently the federal government launched its “Ending the HIV Epidemic” initiative by identifying “hot spots” where both newly infected people and those who are untreated live clustered across the country. Sadly, the entire state of South Carolina has been designated a “hot spot,” and the Midlands is a region where the problem is particularly acute. According to DHEC’s latest statistics, our area accounts for 33% of all new diagnoses and 34% of all persons who live with the disease statewide. And yet prevention and treatment are readily available.

The Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative, located at 1911 Hampton St., was established last year by the family of Joe Neal, the beloved “gentle giant” state representative from Hopkins who died unexpectedly in 2017. Arriving at the State House in 1993, Rep. Neal learned that South Carolina was the only state that outlawed anonymous testing and public funding for HIV/AIDS treatment. Outraged that people were dying needlessly, Rep. Neal worked to overturn both bans and to ensure that state funds were appropriated for that purpose every year until his death.

Joe Neal
Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, spoke during State Senator Clementa Pinckney’s memorial service at College of Charleston’s TD Arena, Friday, June 26, 2015. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Joe Neal understood that HIV/AIDS strikes the African American population disproportionately. Black people make up just 27% of South Carolina’s population, but account for 68.7% of all people living with the illness–compared to 23.8% of Latinos and 4.7% among white people. And African American men, who comprise 13% of the state’s population, are the single largest population of people who live with HIV/AIDS (46%) and receive new diagnoses (51%). Black women in South Carolina live with an HIV diagnosis at a rate 11.6 times greater than white women.

To carry on Neal’s legacy, the Collaborative chose to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Midlands as its first mission. On the prevention side, our staff coordinates outreach and education through partnerships with community health centers, churches, festivals, shelters and the like. But our most critical function is to offer free testing and immediate linkage to medical care and case management in our Hampton Street office with Steven K. Barnett, M.D., whose presence is made possible through our partnership with CAN Community Health.

In a single visit, a person can be tested, diagnosed and begin a medication regimen. For at-risk persons who are not HIV positive, the Collaborative prescribes the preventive medication PREP. If transportation poses a stumbling block to making an appointment, the Collaborative’s mobile van will pick up a client and return them home.

Our life-saving services are free and only a phone call away: (803) 849-8434.

To raise awareness of our work and to celebrate what would have been Joe Neal’s 69th birthday on Aug. 31, the Collaborative is hosting a Sweet Gilliard Production of “God’s Trombones” at Lower Richland High School at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and available at the Collaborative office or via Eventbrite. Come join us, a 40-member gospel choir, brass band and eight Richland County pastors who will orate the sermons and prayer as we embark on our mission to end HIV/AIDS in the Midlands.

Mr. Matthews is executive director of the Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative.