NEWS

Teaching Mississippians About PrEP 1 Person at a Time

Deja Abdul-Haqq, Director, Office of Organizational Development, My Brother's Keeper

Of the 12 states where people have the highest lifetime risk of HIV infection, eight are located in the South. In fact, the South accounted for 62 percent of new diagnoses among Black Americans in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One area that has been particularly hard hit: Jackson, Miss., where, in 2012, at least 1 in 4 MSM in the city were diagnosed with HIV.

 

But despite the high number of people in Jackson whose lives have been touched by HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) remains a mystery to many. Hopefully it won't be that way for long, as My Brother's Keeper, a non-profit organization based in Ridgeland, Miss., works to raise awareness through its Open Arms Healthcare Center.

"Open Arms is the only PrEP clinic in the state, so we have to do a very specific job of introducing or educating people about what PrEP is," says Deja Abdul-Haqq, director of the Office of Organizational Development for My Brother's Keeper.

That job is not always easy, and Abdul-Haqq acknowledges that it can be sobering to hear a wide range of people, from deliverymen to physicians, admit to being unfamiliar with PrEP. But My Brother's Keeper is up to the task.

Taking the Community to School

One of the top priorities is shedding more light on who could actually benefit from PrEP, Abdul-Haqq says. Many people who would be prime candidates don't associate themselves with being at risk for HIV, "so we have to really target our education when it comes to what risk really looks like."

There are challenges rooted in Mississippi's health-care system itself. "You have this whole picture of inadequate access specifically for communities of color," Abdul-Haqq explains. Many areas are impoverished and have inadequate schools and health-care facilities. Also, the Mississippi State Department of Health closed a number of clinics in the last year, Abdul-Haqq says.

To top it all off, the Mississippi State Department of Health recently announced that HIV testing will no longer be free unless the person is under 18 or identified by disease investigators as a contact of an STD or HIV case. For many families who are struggling to pay bills and feed their children, the $25 needed to take a test may not be feasible.

But all of those factors make My Brother's Keeper even more motivated to make a difference.

Working Longtime Connections

One thing My Brother's Keeper has on its side is the fact that it has strong roots in the community. "We've been working intimately with the LGBT community for years, specifically the Black MSM community," Abdul-Haqq says. The trust factor that the organization has built has helped it reach people and spread the word about PrEP. "In every instance where we have an outreach worker and a patient navigator talking to people about healthier living, we're introducing PrEP."

On a broader scale, My Brother's Keeper understands the power of creating a narrative. "We've made a concerted effort to make sure we are getting our story out here locally in Jackson and across the nation because we know it's going to take a collective effort to eradicate HIV," Abdul-Haqq says.

Through traditional media outlets such as newspapers and social media channels such as Facebook, My Brother's Keeper is relaying the message that Black Mississippians refuse to be complacent. "We're not comfortable with having the highest rates, we're not comfortable with having limited access," Abdul-Haqq says.

The organization is also focused on fundraising and creating valuable partnerships with such organizations as the Mississippi Center for Justice and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. "At Open Arms, we do not turn you away because of inability to pay, which is why fundraising efforts are so important," she says.

As her local community learns about PrEP one person at a time, Abdul-Haqq feels gratified whenever people realize that they don't have to be wealthy to gain access to PrEP, or discover that the side effects aren't as bad as they thought. She also looks forward to a day when not only is PrEP awareness a fact of life, but the need for it no longer exists.

"I'm looking forward to the day when this is not our challenge," she says. Then My Brother's Keeper will have done its job.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.