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Fighting AIDS in the South

I don’t know if everyone saw it, but there was a great profile of North Carolina HIV/AIDS pioneer Evelyn Foust in Sunday’s Raleigh News & Observer:

Evelyn Foust would have been happy to be out of her career by now.

As North Carolina’s chief HIV and AIDS fighter, Foust has seen firsthand how the virus has morphed from seemingly isolated cases among gay men to a worldwide epidemic that infects 33 million people. In North Carolina, an estimated 31,000 people have HIV or AIDS.

Evelyn Foust

Evelyn Foust

On Monday, World AIDS Day focuses a passing spotlight on the disease. For Foust, who heads the state’s Communicable Disease Branch, the disease is a daily pursuit.

For Foust, the disease became concrete one day in 1985, when a young man walked into the public health clinic in Charlotte where she worked. Sitting knee-to-knee with him, she broke the news that he faced a fatal infection.

“I remember his face to this day,” she says. “Beautiful big brown eyes. He said, ‘My test result is positive, isn’t it?’ And I said it was positive. And he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I didn’t have anything I could offer. The only thing I knew to do was reach over and squeeze his hand. And I said I was sorry.”

Too many similar conversations followed.

Foust and other HIV/AIDS workers and organization heads are now working together in the Southern AIDS Coalition. As HIV/AIDS has slowly become a life-long disease, instead of an almost immediate, fatal one, cases in the South continue to rack up. The disease still disproportionally infects Southerners, especially in communities of color and among men who have sex with men.

HIV/AIDS disproportionally affects Southerners, especially men who have sex with men and in communities of color.

HIV/AIDS disproportionally affects Southerners, especially men who have sex with men and in communities of color.

Today is World AIDS Day — a day to remember, but also a day to act. I know the economy is bad, but if you have the extra funds, donate to a local AIDS service organization. Or, commit yourself to volunteering or raising awareness of the issue in your own unique way. Remind your friends of the importance of protecting their health by making wise, safe-sex decisions. If you haven’t been tested, or can’t name the place and time when you last were, commit yourself to going for another test as soon as you can.

“Diagnosing and fixing was an old model,” Foust says in the News & Observer piece, regarding HIV/AIDS responses. “It worked for other sexually transmitted diseases, but this was a disease where there was no cure, so you had to work on prevention and testing. People had to protect themselves.”

Taking care of your own health is paramount. Being a part of a community and helping your friends and neighbors do the same thing is just as paramount.