The earliest printed citation referring to a link between memory and the sight of something goes back as far as the 16th century. It’s recognized as the origin of an oft-cited phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.” We understand this phrase to mean that if you don’t see someone or something frequently, you will soon forget them. That particular thing or person will slowly become less of a priority, lose significance and importance will fade over time.

It’s why societally we have dedicated certain times of the year to bring to the forefront of our collective awareness very pressing issues — Domestic Violence Month, Cancer Awareness Month, Go Red for Women Initiative (which focuses on heart disease and stroke among women) and the like. These are examples of public awareness campaigns highlighting certain problems, and attempting to eradicate or lessen their impact.

It’s not that we humans are innately coldhearted. It’s just that if someone is not or has not in some way been personally affected by things, it’s easy to forget the pain and damage they cause. Out of sight, out of mind.

There can be no truer axiom to describe HIV/AIDS today. Its numbers today is staggering, particularly in the Southern part of the United States. Great advancements have been made in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which at one point led to the deaths of 50,000 people in one year.

Yet in certain areas of the country — notably the South — the number of reported new cases is disconcertingly high. It might be out of sight and out of mind, but it’s striking our region of the country with a vengeance.

According to the latest statistics, southern states — from Texas to Louisiana and from Georgia to Florida — have some of the highest HIV new-infection rates in the country. Alabama is one of the top 10 states in the nation for number of diagnosed cases.
Seven of the top 10 cities with the highest rates of HIV infection are in the South. The top four, in order, are: Miami, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi.

For agencies on the front line of this fight it’s a daunting task, made even more so because this scourge is so hidden. Being a deeply religious and conservative area of the country, the South’s epidemic is allowed to remain in the shadows despite its devastating impact and cost.

Lanita Kharel is executive director of the local AIDS Alabama South agency. She has been at the helm of the organization since 2013, a year after AIDS Alabama took over the work and mission of South Alabama Cares.

With AIDS Alabama South being the only AIDS support service between New Orleans and Pensacola, serving a 12-county area, she said she feels this is the most important work she could possibly be engaged in. As the former director of education, and later executive director of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, she is acutely aware of the damage HIV/AIDS is wreaking across the South, throughout Alabama, and in our immediate area.

Mobile has the second-highest HIV rate in the state, she noted, and AIDS Alabama South is seeing people test positive almost daily.

“The age ranges are from 15 to 70. We have young people as well as senior citizens testing positive,” Kharel said. A sobering reality.

“HIV follows the poverty line,” she noted. “If you have high rates of poverty you’re going to have high rates of HIV.” Couple that with lack of education, or the fact that like many Southern states Alabama has no comprehensive sex education program in schools, and it makes for an explosive mix, she said.

With no effective and mandated method for teaching young people how to safely avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, other than sometimes an abstinence-based method, it’s little wonder Alabama has the highest STD rates among teens in the nation. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, someone who has an STD is five times more likely to contract HIV.

Poverty, lack of education and the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS make it difficult to blunt the growth of the virus in our area and the greater South, but these obstacles serve as fuel for Kharel and her small but dedicated staff to be relentless in combating HIV/AIDS.

Though it begins with testing — something she says she can’t emphasize enough and which her agency offers free of charge daily to anyone — the real work is in the myriad services AIDS Alabama South provides to so many throughout a 12,545-square-mile region. From counseling, housing assistance, transportation to and from medical appointments, medical/treatment education and adherence guidance, support groups, a food pantry and even more services, it’s a vital front-line agency in a fight against a viral enemy whose prevalence and lethality are underestimated.

As in other Southern states, despite the prevalence and impact of HIV/AIDS, state and local government funding is being reduced rather than expanded, let alone kept constant. With the elimination of its city funding, AIDS Alabama South has not been an exception to this trend. However, the seriousness of this epidemic is not going away. At this rate, it can only stay out of sight and out of mind for so long.