New Mecklenburg County, North Carolina's health director, Gibbie Harris, got flack for saying the reason Charlotte has such high rates of HIV transmission because it's a "party town" where tourists sometimes leave behind things (like sexually-transmitted infections). After a backlash, she quickly rescinded the statement, but the city continues to have the highest HIV rates in the state.
Harris's comments drew strong rebukes from experts and a county commissioner, who said she was trafficking in stereotypes that cast people who contract the virus as sexually promiscuous.
Mecklenburg County suffers from a rate of 30.4 new diagnoses per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average and nearly two times the norm in North Carolina. The cases are heavily concentrated in low-income neighborhoods in Charlotte, a recent county report shows.
In a statement, Harris apologized, saying:
“My recent use of the term ‘party town’ was never intended to stigmatize anyone or to cause harm to people living with HIV. Words matter. I apologize to those I offended. There are many things that influence HIV and we have much work to do to adequately and appropriately prevent and treat HIV in Mecklenburg County. I hope that we, as a community, can focus on action going forward.”
Despite these statements, Mecklenburg County, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the nation, lack efforts in expanding treatment as prevention strategies like PrEP. The people most at risk still can’t access the drug Truvada, even though it's been over five months since county commissioners agreed to expand its use.
As a result, AIDS activists and some county commissioners say hundreds of people — the vast majority being African-Americans and gay men with low incomes — remain at high risk for the virus because they cannot afford PrEP and follow-up testing, or don’t know it exists.
“My people are still dying,” said Commissioner Vilma Leake, who represents a west Charlotte district hard hit by the virus and whose son died from AIDS complications. “The Health Department had a responsibility and has done nothing with it. We have done absolutely nothing to correct the problem of AIDS. Where is the action?”
Commissioner Trevor Fuller told The Charlotte Observer that it appears county leaders have failed to make HIV prevention a priority.
“I don’t understand it,” said Fuller, who has lobbied for more than a year to make PrEP widely available. “We have had this problem for years. I don’t know why we haven’t addressed this with urgency.”
Jaysen Foreman-McMaster, who works as a benefits manager at RAIN, a nonprofit that supports people living with HIV, “In Mecklenburg County, we talk and we talk,” Foreman-McMaster said. “But unless it’s a new sports stadium, we don’t take action.”