Youth has higher rates of HIV infection in Coastal Ga.

Youth has higher rates of HIV infection in Coastal Ga.
HIV testing. (Source: WTOC)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - At age 24, Shavonne Jordan received a stunning diagnosis – she was HIV positive.

The news stunned her because she didn’t think she fit the profile. She had just ended a 9-year relationship with her boyfriend and decided to get tested before dating anyone else.

"People always think you have to live a reckless life to get it,” she said. “No, you don't. It can come to you. You might have a reckless partner. You might just be an innocent bystander, like I was."

Jordan’s diagnosis back then is part of a trend. Georgia ranks No. 1 in the nation for new HIV infection rates. In the Coastal Georgia area, the most recent numbers show the highest rates of new infection are among young people, between the ages of 20 and 29, according to the HIV Surveillance Study in Georgia for 2017.

Lately, there is an even younger trend local healthcare providers have seen.

“The concerns that I see is we still have high infection rates in this community,’ said Susan Alt, HIV director for Coastal Health District. "Many of the new diagnoses coming in our clinics are in the 17, 18 to 25 age group. That tells me that we are not effectively meeting the prevention needs of that population."

The trend is happening during a time when it’s possible to prevent HIV. There is a daily pill known as PrEP, which can be taken to avoid contracting the virus. And on the other side, for those who have it, there is a pill that suppresses the virus to low levels where it cannot be spread.

"There's definitely some anecdotes where providers will say I'd rather have HIV rather than diabetes for the ease at which you can control it,” said Dr. Chad Martins, HIV prevention specials for Memorial Health in Savannah.

But one thing that’s been difficult to overcome, in the South especially, is the stigma of HIV.

"Not only is there the stigma, but a lot of access to care barriers as well,” Martins said.

Now, the Center for Disease Control has unveiled a 10-year plan to end the epidemic, set to begin next year. The first year of the plan is heavily focused on HIV hotspots which in Georgia include the four counties in the metro Atlanta area and in South Carolina it includes all the rural areas across the state.

"You'll hear the whole conversation about the Southern Bible belt,” Alt said. “You know, where people just aren't comfortable talking about sexuality, and especially gay sex – men who have sex with men”

Those contracting the virus are mostly males passing the virus by having unprotected sex with other men. Women also are represented in the Coastal Georgia area a higher percentage than other parts of the state. Of those who have HIV, about 32 percent are mostly women – many who said they received the virus from having sex with a man.

Getting the word out about prevention is key, Alt said.

"Basically, if we could get everyone who is positive identified, tested and get them in care and undetectable, then there's no new transmissions," she said.

Prevention is the reason why Jordan is sharing her story.

"I can relate to young girls because I was once that young girl. Value yourself, get tested,” she said.

If you don’t know your HIV status and want to get tested, there are several options. You can talk to your doctor. Also, there is free HIV testing at your local health department.

It’s a rapid test, meaning you can find out the results within minutes. And If you test positive, there is a program through the health department that will connect you with counseling and treatment.

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