Pride Month: Fighting HIV in Arkansas

ARKANSAS (KNWA/FOX24) — Arkansas statewide health advocates are battling the HIV epidemic in every corner of the state. It is a disease that heavily affects the LGBTQ+ community across the country.

The Trump administration has identified Arkansas as one of seven states with high rates of HIV in its population. The Arkansas Department of Health used government funding to create a 2020-2025 strategic plan and implement programs to reduce those rates.

“It’s a life-changing thing,” said Kodee Jane Stephens.

They were in denial when they learned last July that they were HIV-positive.

HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If left untreated, it can lead to AIDS, which is fatal. It is most commonly passed on through anal or vaginal sex, but it can also be spread through sharing needles, syringes, or other drug use equipment.

“I didn’t have enough time to process everything,” Stephens said. “It was good that you have HIV, you have to take this medicine, you have to start coming to all these appointments. I’m just like, can we slow down for a minute.

Fortunately, they had the support of Cornelius Mabin Junior, founder and CEO of The Strilite Foundation based in Little Rock.

“The organization was basically spun off to do more outreach, education, awareness and to empower, at this time, emerging young black men around HIV here in Little Rock and eventually across the state,” said he declared.

This cause is close to Mabin’s heart, because when he was diagnosed with HIV 30 years ago, he had very few people to turn to.

“We didn’t have any drugs and they didn’t even give me advice on what my next step should be,” he said. “So I had to figure these things out on my own.”

The Arkansas Department of Health is closely monitoring HIV cases in the state.

“We know we have about 6,000 people living with HIV and about half of them are in care,” said Tiffany Vance, head of ADH’s infectious diseases branch.

According to figures from the ADH Ending the HIV in Arkansas strategic plan, male-to-male sexual contact is the largest category of risk transmission in 2018. Data from the plan shows that black men have the highest rate of HIV diagnosis, which is 7.5 times higher than the rate of men whites.

Data show that most HIV cases are in younger populations. Almost two-thirds of these new diagnoses were in people under the age of 35.

“The goal is to reduce HIV transmission by 75% by 2025 and 90% by 2030,” Vance said of the plan.

They have four pillars to achieve this goal: diagnosing people living with HIV as early as possible, treating people living with HIV quickly and effectively to achieve sustained viral suppression, preventing further transmission of HIV using proven interventions and respond quickly to potential outbreaks.

They also want to increase the rate of viral suppression in the state. It’s the number of people taking medicine to suppress the virus, which means they can’t pass it on to others. Vance said Arkansas was at 54%, but they were aiming to get 80%.

“I think we’re on the right track,” Vance said as we approach the midpoint of the strategic plan.

Stephens now works for the Strilite Foundation as an HIV counselor. They want to help people who find themselves in their place and break down the stigma and misconceptions around HIV.

“People born in the 1980s sometimes call it ‘gay cancer’ and people were dying,” they said. It’s not a death sentence, you can live a long and productive life. I try to explain to people that it’s like living with a chronic disease.

Strilite Foundation members want HIV testing and prevention medication to be part of routine sexual health and comprehensive care. They work to educate people about the new medications available that can preventing and eradicating HIV.

Mabin continues to fight for those who can no longer.

“I feel lucky to still be here to do this job,” he said. “There are so many people I know and remember every day who are not there. For me, it’s to keep trying to work in the community to maintain awareness.

Click here to learn more about the Strilite Foundation and the resources they provide to the people of the state.

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