ARKANSAS (KNWA/FOX24) — Health advocates across the state of Arkansas are working to fight the HIV epidemic in all corners of the state. It’s a disease that heavily impacts the LGBTQ+ community across the nation.
The Trump Administration identified Arkansas as one of seven states with high rates of HIV in its population. The Arkansas Department of Health used funding from the government to create a strategic plan from 2020 to 2025 and implement programs to bring those rates down.
“This is a life changing thing,” said Kodee Jane Stephens.
They were in denial when they got the news last July that they were positive for HIV.
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 spread through anal or vaginal sex, but it can also be spread through sharing needles, syringes or other drug equipment.
“I didn’t have enough time to process everything,” said Stephens. “It was okay you have HIV, you need to be on this medicine, you need to start coming to all these appointments. I’m just like, can we can we slow down a minute.”
Thankfully, they had the support of Cornelius Mabin Junior, founder and CEO of The Strilite Foundation based in Little Rock.
“The organization basically was derived to do more outreach, education, awareness and to empower, at that time, emerging young black men around HIV here in Little Rock and eventually across the state,” he said.
This cause is near to Mabin’s heart, because when he was diagnosed with HIV 30 years ago, he had very few places to turn.
“We didn’t have any drugs and they didn’t even give me any counsel as to what my next step was supposed to be,” he said. “So I had to figure those things out on my own.”
The Arkansas Department of Health is keeping a close eye on HIV cases in the state.
“We know we have roughly about 6000 people living with HIV and about half of those are receiving care,” said Tiffany Vance, Chief of the Infectious Disease Branch with the ADH.
According to numbers with the ADH Ending the HIV in Arkansas Strategic Plan, male-to-male sexual contact is the largest risk transmission category as of 2018. Data in the plan shows Black males have the highest rate of HIV diagnosis, which is 7.5 times higher than the rate of White males.
The data shows that most HIV cases are among younger populations. Nearly two-thirds of these new diagnoses were among people less than 35-years-old.
“The goal is reducing HIV transmission by 75% by 2025, and by 90% by 2030,” said Vance of the plan.
They have four pillars to hit that goal: diagnose people with HIV as early as possible, treat people with HIV rapidly and effectively to reach sustained viral suppression, prevent new HIV transmission by using proven interventions and respond quickly to potential outbreaks.
They also want to increase the viral suppression rate in the state. This is the amount of people who are taking medication to suppress the virus, which means they can’t transmit it to others. Vance said Arkansas is at 54%, but they have a goal of getting 80%.
“I think we are on track,” said Vance as we near the midway point for the strategic plan.
Stephens now works for the Strilite Foundation as an HIV counselor. They want to help people who find themselves in their shoes, and to break down stigma and misconceptions around HIV.
“People born in the 1980’s sometimes refer to it as ‘gay cancer’ and people were dying,” they said. It’s not a death sentence, you can live a long productive life. I try to explain to people that it’s like living with a chronic disease.”
Those at the Strilite Foundation want to see HIV testing and prevention medication become part of routine sexual health and comprehensive care. They work to educate people on the new medications available that can prevent HIV and suppress it.
Mabin continues to fight for those who can’t anymore.
“I feel fortunate to still be here to do this work,” he said. “There’s so many people who I know that I remember every day who are not here. For me, it’s to continue to try to work in the community to keep the awareness going.”
Click here to learn more about The Strilite Foundation and the resources they provide for people across the state.