A new study reported three of every 10 gay or bisexual men in several southern cities has been diagnosed with HIV, and in Mississippi, that rate is even higher.
According to the research from the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 4 in 10 gay or bisexual men in Jackson have been diagnosed with HIV.
"We've been following these numbers for awhile, and we've known through reports over the last six or seven years that the numbers for gay men or men who have sex with men, MSMs as we call them, are having sex with each other in an unprotected setting," said Kathy Garner, executive director of the AIDS Services Coalition. "So we knew that those numbers were coming up. It is shocking though to think that 4 in 10 gay men in Jackson are infected with HIV."
Garner said Mississippi as a whole has the highest new HIV infection rate in the country.
"We are number one, Mississippi, in the Untied States in the rate of new infections for 13 to 24 year olds, so we have a whole generation that is impacted negatively," Garner said. "In Mississippi, 78 percent of the new infections are black men between the ages of 24 and 44."
Forrest County has the second highest new infection rate in the state.
"Forrest county is number two in the state in the rate of new infections," Garner said. "We play back and forth with Harrison County, with the coast. Some of that is because we do a lot of testing here. I don't think that we have a higher rate than most any other county, but I think that we are better at testing people."
Garner said HIV testing should be a routine part of healthcare, especially if one is engaging in risky behavior.
"That's the message that many young people need to have who are scared of getting tested because there's not only stigma about HIV, there's stigma about getting tested for HIV," she said. "I used to go 'oh we had a positive,' but now I have caught myself saying, 'you know, that's fabulous.' We can get people into care, and they can get on with their lives. Because that's the main thing that we want people to know is that HIV is no longer a death sentence, and if you are positive, you can live a full life."
Along with testing, Garner said practicing safe sex is essential for preventing new infections.
"Nobody wants to say 'I infected somebody else.' That's not something you want," she said. "So we're talking about making sure testing is a normal part of your healthcare, that you use a condom regularly and safely and correctly, and then you get on with your life."
Garner said the AIDS Services Coalition offers free and confidential HIV testing at its outreach center at 103 Broad St. in Hattiesburg. She asks that anyone wanting a test call (601) 329-2425 to schedule an appointment before arriving.
"It is confidential and non-judgmental," she said. "That's the best thing that I can tell you about my staff is that they are nonjudgmental, and they want to make sure that you are safe and healthy."