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Arizona religious leaders joining fight against AIDS

Posted at 7:47 PM, Apr 10, 2017

Several Valley churches are getting involved in the fight to prevent AIDS. This comes after alarming CDC statistics showing that African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than other ethnic groups.

The talk of practicing safe sex may not be something you expect to hear during the Sunday morning sermon, but Pastor Warren Stewart Jr. of Remnant South Phoenix said the staggering numbers meant it was time to start talking about it.

"The church should be leading the way," said Stewart. "If the church is not speaking about love and care for the diseased, and broken, and oppressed than we've missed it."

While he still advocated the biblical teachings of abstinence until marriage, Stewart said community leaders needed to be mindful that times had changed, and address the social concerns of the day head on.

"It's happening whether we like it or not. I would bring it up like any other social issue. Jesus said he came to heal the diseased. There is still a disease that's still affecting our community. It's HIV and AIDS," said Stewart.

He added there is still a social stigma associated with the disease that prevents many from coming forward or from seeking treatment and prevention. Stewart hoped to change that mindset by openly talking about it, and promoting HIV testing within his community.

Glen Spencer, the executive director of Aunt Rita's Foundation, a non-profit group that supported agencies that provided HIV and AIDS treatment, support, education and prevention said wile the rate of new infections among Caucasians was leveling out, the other numbers they were seeing were alarming.

CDC studies showed African American women were 16 times more likely to get HIV than Caucasian women and African American men were 8 times more likely to be diagnosed than Caucasian men.

"18% of new infections in Arizona are African Americans. That is six times the rate of infection in a Caucasian community," said Spencer.

The reasons for these high numbers were attributed to poverty, an uneven access to healthcare and cultural stigma.

Access to healthcare also prevented many from getting their hands on preventative treatments like Prep, which reduces the risk of getting HIV by 90%.

"Prep would cost $1,500 per month for someone with no insurance," said Spencer.

For those living with the disease, advocates said money should not prevent them from getting access to treatment.  There were many organizations in Arizona that covered the cost for treatment and medications.

Spencer said he was a living example that HIV was not a death sentence as some people thought. He has lived with it for 15 years, took his medication, and was thriving.

"I hope to live well into my 80's and be that guy that's being pushed around in a wheelchair," said Spencer.

For more information about HIV testing or prevention you can go to www.hivaz.org.

Spencer said there were about 20,000 people with HIV estimated to be living in Arizona right now, but of those 15% are not aware they have the disease.

Statistics show 52% of people with HIV in Arizona are Caucasian, 28% Hispanic, 13% Black, and 4% Native American.

The CDC recommends everyone get tested for the HIV virus at least once, and those engaging in high-risk behavior should be tested at least once per year.