HIV & AIDS in Columbia: The Silent EpidemicWritten by Blake Welch
Of all newly diagnosed cases in the United States, the fastest growing rates of HIV and AIDS belong to the college demographic. 2011 marked the 30th year that the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recognized HIV. AIDS has since claimed over 600,000 lives in the United States alone and more than 30 million across the world. Stemming from the HIV infection, AIDS progressively weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to other diseases. Originally known as “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency) and “the 4H disease” (because of its prevalence among Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin users), this disease has had many faces over the years. Today, however, it is clear that AIDS and HIV are not exclusive to any one demographic.
The entire Southeast has an extremely high rate of HIV and AIDS diagnoses, accounting for the majority of cases across the nation. South Carolina largely contributes to this. Statistics released in 2009 rank Columbia as the sixth worst rate of newly diagnosed AIDS cases. The disease’s prevalence in Columbia surpasses notorious “party” cities like Las Vegas and New Orleans. Seven of the 10 worst-rated states belong to the Southeast, which the medical community has deemed as the ‘AIDS belt’ of the US–and South Carolina proves to be the buckle.
Trojan, the latex provider, annually ranks universities’ sexual health resources across the country, and for many years, USC has been near the top of that list. Despite availability of sexual health resources, the AIDS rate in Columbia consistently ranks among the worst cities in the country. But why is our rank for contracting this deadly infection so high?
The homegrown, conservative lifestyle so often associated with the South may contribute. Shameka Wilson, sexual health coordinator at USC Campus Wellness, says the Southeast addresses HIV and AIDS differently than other places.
“In the South, you generally don’t do more than whisper about sex. In [other parts of the country], they’re more open about it, and it shows in the programs they create,” she says.
I was born and raised in South Carolina, and when it comes to sex, mum’s the word. Most people believe that what happens in the privacy of your bedroom should stay there, even among your closest friends, and our state’s overall sexual health suffers for it. How we approach and discuss the subject forms at an early age. When examining schools’ sexual health programs in different areas of the country, one cannot ignore the disparities of South Carolina’s system.
“My high school [in Connecticut] required everyone to take two semester-long classes about sexual health, and we covered just about everything,” third-year visual communications student Annie Drowne, recalls. “It wasn’t a big deal to talk about it.”
This is in sharp contrast to the minimal amount of sexual education given in the South, as most high schools only cover it for a few weeks, if at all. Vinet Patel, fourth-year risk management and insurance student, offers that updating the curriculum thst he was taught is long overdue.
“They didn’t teach us much, and we had already heard most of what they would teach us in other places,” he says. “We all knew about condoms and birth control. They didn’t teach much beyond that.”
The majority of American high school sex education programs teach an abstinence-based method, so most students learn that they should refrain from sex until marriage. This method often results in students not learning proper protection methods for infections. A large number of high school students are sexually active, and evidence proves that this number only increases among college students. If students are undereducated about infections their bodies can contract, what does that mean for our well-being?
Times have changed, and this isn’t the same South that our parents grew up accustomed to. We are linked through smartphones, computers and other gadgets, and sharing explicit details of our personal lives has become relatively common. Fourth-year business management student Lee Williams believes that, despite this constant contact, the boundaries we place on our sexual discussions regarding STD’s have led to the prevalence of HIV and AIDS among college students.
“We always seem to be talking about sex, and popular culture and media certainly support our generation’s general belief that sex is a good thing,” he says. “I believe that it is but also that we should do it safely. Even so, I would be uncomfortable discussing AIDS status and testing with someone. I’ve never had that conversation with a partner.”
Many in our student body have never discussed it either. To learn more about students’ sexual health awareness and practices, Garnet & Black spoke with 60 USC students. All but five of these students say they are sexually active, and almost all of them say that their partner’s sexual health is of large concern to them. Despite this, most of them had never discussed STD’s with their partners before engaging in sex, let alone talk about it with anyone else. Nor had they been tested themselves.
A conversation about sexual health can be unnerving, particularly in the South, but Shameka Wilson believes it is the first step.
“Education is key,” she says. “When people know better, to talk candidly and without shame about an issue that affects us all, their health will benefit. Our state will benefit too.”
We’re willing to acknowledge the enjoyable parts of sex. Guys proudly reach into the bowl of free condoms at the Student Health Center, and girls openly pop birth control pills before class. We rarely consider, however, that we, or our partners, could be infected. Without being tested, the disease is invisible.
Navigating a conversation about HIV and AIDS is difficult. Perhaps that scares us more than anything. We must look past our foolish fears and realize that one uncomfortable conversation with a partner could prevent a life-long illness.
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