The South's Silent Epidemic

HIV/AIDS In The South
In many Southern states, African-Americans account for drastically disproportionate numbers of HIV/AIDS cases.
CBS

If you travel beyond Charlotte's picturesque landscape to its African-American neighborhoods, you'll find a silent epidemic - HIV and AIDS spreading at alarming rates.

At the Metrolina AIDS Project, where seven out of 10 clients are black, it's all hands on deck to prevent the crisis from getting worse, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

African-Americans make up 22 percent of North Carolina's population but are 68 percent of reported AIDS cases. Those numbers are virtually reversed for whites, who make up 74 percent of the state population, but account for only 22 percent of reported AIDS cases.

"In the African-American community, there's still not the awareness, the personal accountability," said Ann White, executive director of the Metrolina AIDS Project.

North Carolina is not unique. In Virginia, blacks make up 58 percent of AIDS cases and across the deep South, from South Carolina to Louisiana, the rate is 68 percent and higher. The statistics beg the question - why the South?

"Well, I really think the numbers in the South were always there but we didn't have the resources available before to actually perform the test," said White.

For black women ages 25 to 44, HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death. They are quickly becoming the face of the disease.

"I was dumbfounded and really the only one I could look at was my husband," said Lorraine Mitchell, an AIDS patient who says her husband knew he had AIDS even before they were married.

"What did you think?" asked Pinkston.

"Murder," said Mitchell.

Nearly 70 percent of black women are infected through heterosexual contact with men they believe are heterosexual. Often that is not the case.

White says that black men who show up having contracted HIV/AIDS from other men often don't consider themselves gay .

"Gay is not the word used," said White.

DeMarsh Tarver contracted the virus from his gay partner and agrees with White's assessment.

"I've been approached by married men, members of the church," he said. "They don't think about the consequences."

AIDS activists here believe that the region is being short-changed when it comes to funding for treatment and prevention.

"If we could get more funding into the South, it would alleviate the problem," said Katherine Heirs of the Southern AIDS Coalition.

Congress recently increased funding for the president's global AIDS initiative by 300 percent, but domestic spending was increased just 5 percent. The largest block of AIDS funding has remained virtually flat and most of it goes to big cities, not rural areas.

"What is happening in New York City is different than what is happening in North Carolina and Mississippi, and yet we are responsible for making sure regardless of where you live, you do have access to services," said Dr. Deborah Parham Hopson, a Ryan White Act administrator.

But the issue goes beyond a debate over money to what's known as "the stigma."

"I felt like I had been condemned because of the lifestyle I live," said Tarver.

"If this didn't happen to me, I can't guarantee you how I would have reacted if the shoe was on the other foot," said Mitchell.

In the South, that stigma looms so large that clinics don't even have signs outside their buildings, so their clients won't be ashamed to enter.

One traditional source of the stigma has been the church. But attitudes from the pulpit to the pews are slowly changing. That will be part two of our continuing report.