As the novel coronavirus continues to rage in the United States — monopolizing our time, attention, money and resources — another silent enemy is surging with deadly intent under the radar, particularly in the South: HIV and AIDS.

HIV and AIDS are impacting citizens, particularly at-risk groups, in inordinate numbers below the Mason-Dixon line.

Nearly half the people who are dying of AIDS in the United States are from the South, even though they constitute only about 33 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moreover, the CDC states that nearly 45 percent of new HIV infections occur in the South.

Gilead Sciences is using its financial firepower to try to eradicate the four-decade-old scourge. The biopharmaceutical company is in the middle of a 10-year, $100 million campaign to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southern states.

Dr. Shanell McGoy, who is the director of corporate social responsibility at Gilead, is helping to lead the initiative, entitled COMPASS (COMmitment to Partnership in Addressing HIV/AIDS in Southern States) from metro Atlanta.

Gilead is partnering with Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, and the Southern AIDS Coalition in Birmingham, Alabama with the sweeping plan.

These three esteemed institutions have been appointed to disseminate the funds on behalf of the California-based Gileadto prospective grantees in the South who exemplify the ability to provide support in the following areas: capacity building and knowledge sharing; well-being, mental health, trauma-informed care; awareness, education, and anti-stigma campaigns.

“We’re looking to create a lasting impact and to get rid of HIV in the South,” McGoy said. “And the reason why we’re addressing AIDS in this region is because of the statistics that we see.”

McGoy reminds readers that there are 16 states the constitute the South and are the targets of Gilead’s COMPASS campaign.

This includes the commonwealth of Kentucky in the north and goes as far west as Texas. The boundaries also include the Eastern seaboard provinces of the District of Columbia and Virginia, and covers every state south of the nation’s Capitol and includes all of Florida.

“HIV/AIDS remains an urgent public health crisis in the United States and this is particularly apparent in the Southern states where rates of new infection rival those seen in the 1980s. In some communities, those rates are actually rising – a chilling reminder that the epidemic is far from a thing of the past,” said Gregg Alton, Executive Vice President, Corporate and Medical Affairs, Gilead Sciences.

“We recognize a collaborative effort is needed and we are very pleased to partner with local organizations that are uniquely positioned to address the epidemic on the ground.”

McGoy believes that once HIV and AIDS are decimated in the South, they will reverberate across other geographical regions.

“So we’re really looking to get rid of HIV and the South,” McGoy said. “And once we do that, I think we can end HIV in this country.”

There are some impediments that make the ambitious goal challenging, if not arduous at times, McGoy recognizes.

Stigmatization can be crippling and prevent cultural subgroups who contract the virus from seeking the medical attention they need. Even after four decades of existence, the subject remains taboo in many Black homes, schools and churches.

“We need to stop stigmatizing folks who are gay, folks who are trans, folks who are bisexual and really embrace them in our communities,” McGoy said. “Stop talking about them because this isolates them puts them at risk for acquiring HIV.”

Another hindrance that must be removed is collective apathy. McGoy said HIV/AIDS got our full attention when NBA legend Magic Johnson announced that he had the virus in November of 1991.

It inspired widespread conversations in American and we temporarily amended our reckless sexual behavior. But once pharmaceutical companies developed medicine to help people live much longer lives with the disease, many folks began to revert back to their previous behavior.

“As our medications evolved and people are living and thriving with HIV and AIDS,” McGoy said, “people started to think, ‘well, maybe this is not as bad as we think. Maybe this is not a death sentence. So we still need to pay attention. We still need to protect ourselves.”

And Black women need to protect themselves. McGoy read off a CDC stat that says women represent 19 percent of those who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. But of that 19 percent, 67 percent of those are Black females. Furthermore, one in nine women is unaware they have the disease.

“That’s why it’s so important that we have these conversations about our health,” said McGoy, “We (women) are oftentimes the caregivers for so many others in our communities and our families, but we also need to address our own health, particularly our sexual health.”

Dr. Shanel McGoy, director of corporate social responsibility at Gilead (Photo Credit: George H. McKenney IV)

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