JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) - The City of Jackson has the fourth highest rate of HIV infection in the nation.
In a CDC report released in 2016, the agency states 45 percent of HIV diagnoses in the country come from the south.
Jackson is just 1 of 5 southern metropolitan areas with the highest rate of HIV infection, high teen HIV infection rates, and high HIV death rates for young women and adults.
According to data from the Mississippi State Department of Health, 424 Mississippians were diagnosed with HIV in 2016.
329 of them were men and 95 of them were women.
MSDH data also shows Hinds County has the most number of cases out of all counties in the state.
"You can't escape the data," said Deja Abdul-Haqq, director of the office of organization development for My Brother's Keeper. "If the data tells us we're fourth in the nation, if the data tells us that 4 in 10 gay and bisexual men in Jackson, Mississippi are HIV positive, we're dealing with an endemic."
Abdul-Haqq said the ways sex and HIV have been addressed in the community needs to change.
"We don't talk about sex enough," Abdul-Haqq said. "Our young people aren't talking about sex enough, they're learning sex or learning about what they think sex is from porn on the internet. It creates a very unhealthy perspective about what sex is. The porn industry is not promoting PrEP, it's not promoting condoms, it's not promoting birth control, so those are the three major unplanned consequences of risky sex but we're not talking about those things with our young people and the places they're getting their ideas about sex aren't talking about them either."
Adbul-Haqq said the conversation needs to continue at churches as well.
"Everybody in church is a product of sex," she said. "We want to pretend like you can't be holy and sexual or sensual at the same time and you can. So, there need to be mechanisms in our places of faith to talk about sex."
CDC data shows Jackson also has one of the highest rates of HIV prevalence among men between 13-24 years old.
"They're playing ball without a helmet," Abdul-Haqq said. "The fact that they're playing ball is not the problem. The fact that they're doing it in a way that's not safe is. We wouldn't have the HIV rates and STI rates if people were using condoms or using PrEP. We've got solutions but we don't want to talk about sex. Sex is not the problem, the epidemic is based on the virus and the virus can be prohibited."
She said many in the LGBTQ community feel isolated from the community, forcing many of them to suffer in silence.
My Brother's Keeper teamed up with the Open Arms Health Clinic to give those in the LGBTQ community a safe place to get proper care and treatment without judgment.
The clinic is also open to the general public.
"What we're doing at Open Arms and MBK is creating an environment that makes it okay to be who you are," Abdul-Haqq said. "That's the only way you're going to be able to provide quality care to people. That's the only way you're going to be able to properly screen people and not just get vitals but how do you live? Where do you go? What do you do? Give me all of you so that I can give you a comprehensive plan to wellness. If you don't have that with your medical provider, then you're not receiving quality care."
Abdul-Haqq said members of the LGBTQ community living in rural Mississippi may experience additional stigma about their sexuality.
"The whole evolution of sex and gender identity really hasn't taken root in our rural communities," she said. "A lot of our young people are growing and evolving and don't really have anyone to talk to. So, they're making unsafe sexual choices in the spirit of exploring and then in some instances, a lot of our young people are being exposed to HIV and other STI's. Not only can they not talk about the sex that they thought about, they can't talk about the sex that they had, and they definitely can't talk about the STI or HIV that they've been exposed to."
For more information on prevention programs available through My Brother's Keeper, call 601-216-2455.
Click here for more information on the Open Arms Healthcare Clinic.