Breaking the Silence on HIV in rural Louisiana

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Someone with less strength, faith and perseverance…

“In 1984 I had a blood transfusion. In 1985 I received a letter from the blood center says the person I received the blood from died of Aids,” said Monica Johnson.

“I never ever, ever thought that HIV would be the thing that took me out,” she said.

“In 1989 I got pregnant and told my OB-GYN what happened and got retested me and confirmed in fact I was in fact HIV positive so been positive for almost 34 years,” said Johnson.

Monica Johnson did anything but wallow in tragedy. She was fueled to fight because of the smallest word “no”.

“I was called a lot of things and they weren’t nice angry black woman and everything else I was just trying to make sure that my son had everything else had the opportunities that everybody else had that was it,” says Johnson.

She took possibly the worst news anyone could get and did more than make the best of it.

“I was more concerned about my baby than I was about myself,” says Johnson.

Her son, Vaurice would live 3 and half years before complications from the disease took his life.  His loss became her mission to educate starting in rural Columbia, Louisiana.

Johnson is founder and CEO of Heroes or Help where everyone receives ongoing effective support.

The non-profit focuses on empowerment and education of people impacted by HIV and AIDS in rural Louisiana. 

However her battle to educate didn’t come easy.

“People called my house, told me to get out of town. If I went to the drug store they would disinfect the counter before I could talk out. When they saw me they cross on the other side of street so they didn’t have to walk near me,” says Johnson.

Fear and ignorance: More motivation for a first of its’ kind study she conducted and presented at the United States conference on AIDS in DC this summer.

Uncovering startling numbers, 15% of people living with the disease in the pelican state are from rural areas. Louisiana leads the nation in new HIV cases.

“When I travel there are bus stops and prevention messages everywhere on the train on the billboards… you don’t see that here,” says Johnson.

And her research revealing something even more frightening about the disease and African-Americans 

“Black people are so quick to take themselves out of stuff so when they were saying it’s a gay white man’s disease black people were like it’s a gay white man’s disease that ain’t got nothing to do with me,” says Johnson.

However statistics tell quite a different story African-Americans are becoming infected and dying more than any other group.

A growing number and an alarming number is women particularly African-American women there are more African-American women in my clinic than any other demographic, the majority of my new diagnosis have been young black men some heterosexual but the majority gay men. 

Dr. Tavell kindall is a family nurse practitioner, HIV specialty care provider at Go Care, the community clinic in West Monroe that treats patients in our area with HIV and Aids. They also provide many other services including preventive medication and much needed education.          

Dr. Kindall says there are other issues in the area that aren’t helping efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. Medications like “Prep” that are available to prevent, but some doctors, right here, aren’t familiar with them.               

“There are general practitioners, primary care providers in our area who do not know about this and it’s unfortunate that someone has to come to the HIV clinic to get something to keep them from getting HIV,” says Dr. Kindall.

For Monica Johnson her dream is a cure for the disease by the year 2030. 

At her dream retreat, panelists and motivational speakers from all over the country joined volunteers preaching empowerment in the battle against stigma, lack of education and limited resources to fight HIV. 

For Johnson, every day is a new opportunity to get people in rural areas like northeast Louisiana to be aware.

She says “they need to know the facts and you cannot look at somebody and know they have HIV and one of the ways you get the facts is know your status how you get your status you got to get tested, you get in treatment get virally suppressed HIV is a chronically managed disease.”

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