This article is part of the Proud U series, a component of U=U & U, Pride Media’s year-long initiative to get the word out about HIV prevention, treatment, and testing, especially the groundbreaking news that people living with HIV who have undetectable viral loads can no longer transmit HIV.
Bordering Lake Pontchartrain and built on a crescent curve along the Mississippi River, the city of New Orleans is located near the bayous of southern Louisiana’s Delta region. Its history and geography has always shaped the culture.
Though precariously placed and vulnerable to flooding (most dramatically demonstrated by the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), the port city is also a gumbo of mixed perspectives and plentiful fun. Even as sea levels rise and the city faces other risks — including high HIV rates — the spirit and determination of the people who populate this Southern city are unmatched.
According to the New Orleans alternative paper The Gambit, New Orleans (as well as nearby Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana as a whole) has some of the country's highest number of HIV cases relative to its population. The statewide Louisiana HIV/AIDS Strategy reports that between 2013 and 2017, diagnoses in the New Orleans metropolitan area specifically decreased from 523 to 354, according to the New Orleans Regional AIDS Planning Council.
The number of new cases has declined in recent years, partly due treatment as prevention and the advent of PrEP.
The lovely staff at New Orleans Regional AIDS Planning Council (NORAPC).
The successful use of treatment as prevention is based on the principles underlining the U=U consensus (Undetectable = Untransmittable), which is that once someone living with HIV is in treatment and able to lower their viral loads to undetectable levels, it becomes impossible for them to transmit the virus, even to sexual partners. (They must stay on treatment to remain undetectable.)
The state of Louisiana may lag behind many other states in most health-related markers. (In fact, the state is dead last in overall health In the 2018 United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings report on the health of residents in the 50 states.) But it has been at the vanguard in one arena: accepting the U=U consensus.
Louisiana Secretary of Health Rebekah Gee (along with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome) signed on to the U=U consensus in March, making Louisiana the first southern state to do so, DeAnn Gruber, director of the health department’s Bureau for Infectious Diseases, told The Gambit.
But racial disparities continue to plague the state, leaving Black people nearly six times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than their white neighbors, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. African-Americans accounted for nearly 75 percent of all new HIV diagnoses. Vincenzo Pasquantonio, who heads New Orleans’ equity office, labeled the racial imbalance an “emergency” earlier this year.
Jazz musicians perform on a street corner in NOLA's famed French Quarter.
Progress is being made, though. According to Dr. Jason Halperin, a physician at the New Orleans health clinic CrescentCare (formerly NOAIDS), outreach to the community has helped increase the number of Black PrEP users in their care to just under 25 percent — reportedly double the national rate.
“I’m so darn proud of the work CrescentCare does,” Dorian-Gray Alexander, producer and host of the Proof Positive Show on the community station FM 102.3 WHIV, says of the organization, which he says implements stellar care including a gender clinic and syringe access programs that are “truly inspirational and unique to our city and in the South.”
The city of New Orleans has also joined the ”Fast-Track Cities” initiative aimed at ending HIV by 2030. It has made some progress in their goal to achieve 90-90-90 (90 percent of people living with HIV in the city diagnosed, 90 percent of those diagnosed on medication, and 90 percent of those on medication virally suppressed).
Currently, 87 percent of those with HIV in New Orleans have been diagnosed, and 97 percent of those who are on medication are virally suppressed. But, only 66 percent of those diagnosed in New Orleans are on antiretroviral medications, bringing the percentage of people living with HIV in the city who are virally suppressed down to a paltry 56 percent.
So, there are two major challenges in New Orleans: getting people with HIV into care (and undetectable) and getting those at risk of contracting HIV on PrEP. Fortunately, there are resources available to help.
The mission of CrescentCare is to offer comprehensive health and wellness services to the community, to advocate empowerment, to safeguard the rights and dignity of individuals, and to provide for an enlightened public.
“We bring caregivers and the community together as partners in health and wellness for all,” the organization states on their website. “Our experience builds on more than 30 years of impact through our founding organization, NO/AIDS Task Force. Now, as a Federally Qualified Health Center, we’re taking that expertise and expanding it. At CrescentCare, we now offer a broad range of health and wellness services for anyone and everyone who is seeking healthcare services in Greater New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana.”
On Saturday, September 28, hundreds of people will walk as one in the 30th Annual Walk to End HIV, presented by Chevron and Avita Pharmacy to benefit HIV services of CrescentCare. This is the same great event as the NO/AIDS WALK with just a name change to reduce stigma in the community. The three-mile walk and run raises awareness of the impact HIV continues to have on the community by honoring those living with the disease and remembering those who have passed on. Funds raised will allow CrescentCare to continue to provide critical help to the thousands of individuals who depend on its essential HIV services: primary medical care, HIV and STI testing, counseling, prevention education, housing and nutritional assistance, and much more.
The New Orleans Regional AIDS Planning Council is the public planning body that plans for the distribution of federal Ryan White Part A funds. Its mission is to develop and maintain a comprehensive system of care for people living with HIV in the New Orleans area that is accessible, responsive, culturally sensitive, and of the highest quality to ensure that all people living with HIV live with dignity. The city-led organization brings community members together to develop and maintain a comprehensive system of care for people living with HIV in the Eligible Metropolitan Area that is accessible, responsive, culturally sensitive, and of the highest quality to ensure all PLWH live with dignity.
Project Lazarus provides transitional housing to people living with HIV who have no other place to live. The agency has two large buildings with each separated into two ‘houses’. Resident rooms are uniquely furnished and decorated, and residents may choose to decorate and individualize them as they wish. They are all equipped with cable television and telephones. Additionally, the houses have common living areas and bathrooms as well as family style kitchens that never close. Project Lazarus encourages maximum independence, but provides minimum to total care based on individual need.
Men and women come to Project Lazarus in various stages of health, and care is individualized according to each person’s needs. These needs are evaluated at least weekly, and care plans are adjusted as necessary. To date, more than 1000 men and women diagnosed with HIV have called Lazarus their home.
An annual event held every September, Bon Appétit raises funds to help further the critical mission of Project Lazarus (above). Participants host a party of any size, from a backyard barbecue to a five-course formal dinner, and ask guests to make a monetary donation when they arrive. Parties can be hosted throughout the entire month of September.
In addition, the Bon Appétit Dessert and Champagne After-Party allows hosts and their guests to enjoy desserts, champagne, and cocktails in an elegant and festive environment, as well as toast the evening's success in support of the work of Project Lazarus. Those who are unable to host or attend a dinner party may join the after-party for a donation of $40.
Find out more about U=U, and what that means for you, at our U=U&U channel.