by Kevin Allman
The Southern AIDS Living Quilt can't keep you warm -- but it might save your life.
A high-tech twist on the original AIDS Memorial Quilt, but where the original fabric creation was a melange of art, memorial and agitprop, its virtual cousin is an educational Web site, the joint project of two groups: the Southern AIDS Coalition, which encompasses 14 states across the Gulf Coast and Appalachia; and Test for Life, an organization that encourages HIV tests for nearly everyone.
The Quilt went live on the Internet this afternoon at an unveiling ceremony at the Collins C. Diboll Gallery at the Tulane University School of Public Health. Visitors to the Web site (www.livingquilt.org) can view streaming videos of Southern women with HIV telling their stories, as well as get information about the nearest testing sites and the disease itself. Nearly 40 testimonies are online now, and organizers are just getting started.
Dr. Bambi Sumpter-Gaddist, executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council, was among the presenters, and she spoke frankly about the statistics and challenges of reaching minority groups with the test-early, test-often message (a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 70 percent of the new AIDS diagnoses in Louisiana are among African-Americans). In the black community, we have some issues, Sumpter-Gaddist said. There are some secrets we have held. But those secrets are now killing us.
New Orleans is an epicenter [for new HIV infections] and so is Louisiana, says John Procter, media director for the project. More and more, its turning into a suburban or rural crisis, and more and more African-American women are being impacted. The growth is alarming [HIV infection is] now the Number One killer of African-American women 25-34 years old.
Beth Scalco, state AIDS director for the Louisiana Office of Public Health in Baton Rouge, provided even more sobering statistics, including the fact that 9 out of 10 of the states with the highest per capita rates of AIDS infections are in the South (Louisiana is #5).
Among others on hand for the Web site's unveiling were Rebecca Clark, director of the Maternal/Child HIV Outpatient Program at the Medical Center of Louisiana; Archbishop Joyce Turner-Keller, founder of the Baton Rouge-based HIV organization Aspirations; Noel Twilbeck, director of the NO/AIDS Task Force; and Evelyn Foust, co-chair of the Southern AIDS Coalition and director of the HIV branch of the North Carolina Department of Public Health.
Organizers hope the virtual quilt will serve as outreach in the rural South, including in Louisiana's rural parishes, which have been hit surprisingly hard by HIV. The 2006 annual HIV/AIDS report from Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals shows that 18 parishes had infection rates larger than 300 per 100,000 residents including not only Orleans, Jefferson, and West and East Baton Rouge parishes, but also smaller northern parishes such as Caddo, Claiborne, E. Carroll, Madison, and Tensas.
Following the New Orleans unveiling, the Living Quilt will be further publicized next week with ceremonies in other Southern cities, including Raleigh, N. C. on Oct. 28, and one in Miami on Oct. 30 that will focus on AIDS in the Hispanic community. But the goal of the Living Quilt is to reach all Southern women, regardless of their race or income -- women like New Orleanian Gina Brown, who found out she was HIV-positive in 1994 during a routine maternity test.
Brown now pursuing a degree at Southern University and working as a case manager for the NO/AIDS Task Force says her case disproves the stigma of living publicly with HIV.
I live in a small apartment complex and all my neighbors know, Brown said. And they know to knock on my door if they need condoms.