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America’s Other Epidemic: HIV in Confederate States


Almost 70% of new HIV infections each year in the US are a result of male to male sex. The other 30% results from injecting drug use and non-male to male sex. But prevalence varies considerably from state to state. An estimated 45% of all HIV positive people live in the southern region of the US. Prevalence is also high in some northeastern states, especially in some cities.

The southern region consists of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Dist. Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Prevalence is highest in the District of Columbia; at 3.61% that’s higher than in 138 countries. Florida has the highest HIV positive African American population, 48,500 people, higher than in 109 countries.

In the southern states, an estimated 55% of the people living with HIV are African Americans. The figure for the Midwest is 47%, 42% for the Northeast and 18% for the West. Although African Americans only make up just over 13% of the population, almost half live in southern states, about 22 million people. And HIV prevalence among African Americans in southern states is 7 times higher than it is among white Americans.

Prevalence in every southern state is several times higher among African Americans than it is among white Americans; it’s 3 times higher in the District of Columbia and 9 times higher in Maryland. In 2014, almost half of all new HIV infections in the US were among African Americans and two thirds of people living with HIV in southern states are African Americans.

The contrast is also stark for heterosexual HIV: there were more than 4,600 female African Americans infected, compared to just over 1,100 female white Americans infected. Infections classified as ‘white heterosexual male’ are low in number, whereas an estimated 2,000 were classified as ‘black heterosexual male’.

Why would sexual behavior among African Americans, homosexual and heterosexual, be more risky than sexual behavior among white Americans? And why would sexual behavior be exceptionally risky in southern states? Or is there more to high HIV prevalence than levels of sexual behavior and types of sexual practice?

To put it another way, do African Americans tend to conform to the many stereotypes about them, such as levels of sexual behavior, types of sexual behavior, attitudes towards sex, etc? Or are there things about the environment, such as living conditions, economic and social conditions and conditions in healthcare facilities, for example, that increase the risk of infection that African Americans face?

It’s hard to know what conditions, exactly, could increase risk to such a degree, or even how. But there certainly are factors that are particularly acute in southern states. The bottom 11 states for life expectancy are in the southern region, as are most of the states with the highest incarceration rates. Almost all the poorest states are in the south. States with the lowest rankings for educational attainment, at all levels, are in the south. Rates of unemployment and homicide rates are high.

Of course, some of the southern states are among the richest by GDP, with the highest household income. But they also have the some of the highest levels of inequality, with several states ranking lowest for economic indicators and several ranking poorest in the US. As a result, most of the states with the lowest Human Development Index are in the southern region. Rates of religiosity are high; this is the bible-belt.

Some sexual practices are low risk for HIV, some are high risk. But why do African Americans, gay and straight, face far higher risk of infection than white people? Prevalence in Somalia, Senegal, Niger, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt is lower than in the US (.6%). Prevalence in Burundi, DRC, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Eritrea and Mauritania is lower than in the US south (1.12%). HIV prevalence does not correlate well with sexual behavior data. So what other factors could be involved?

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