Atlanta Continues To Grapple With HIV Epidemic

A mobile HIV testing unit sets up in a parking lot in South DeKalb County.
A mobile testing unit sets up in a parking lot in South DeKalb County. People can go into the van, which travels to areas throughout metro Atlanta, and get a free HIV test in about a minute.
Credit Elly Yu / WABE
Audio version of this story here.

Gary Jerkins sets up a tent outside a van in a sprawling parking lot in South DeKalb County. The van is a mobile testing unit with AIDS Healthcare Foundation, where people can hop in and get a free HIV test in about a minute.

“We’re actually out five days a week — Tuesday through Saturday, nontraditional hours and locations to improve visibility and accessibility,” said Jerkins, an HIV testing counselor with the organization.

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Jerkins says the van goes to areas throughout metro Atlanta where it can reach a lot of people and where there aren’t many health clinics nearby.

He said they try hard to make the van inviting, playing music and passing out freebies because he says there’s fear and stigma around testing and the virus.

That’s one reason why HIV is an epidemic in the region, said Dr. Melanie Thompson, principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta.

“We still have a raging HIV situation, epidemic here in our community,” Thompson said.

The metro Atlanta area ranks fifth in the rate of new HIV diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia ranks second in the nation among states.

“We’re really not seeing the kind of declines that have been seen in other places,” she said. “For example, in San Francisco, they had less than a third of the new HIV infections that we had right here in Fulton County alone.”

Thompson says apart from the stigma and discrimination, there are other barriers in Atlanta and in the South, like higher rates of poverty and the number of people who are uninsured.

Thompson has been working on a strategy to end AIDS as part of a Fulton County Task Force, which includes things like getting people to treatment faster and revamping sex education programs in schools.

“We finally do have a plan here at the county level. I think we need to do more to make that a metro Atlanta plan,” she said.

She said a statewide plan is necessary as well. But she said a plan is just moving one step forward in ending HIV in the region, and that she’d like to see the issue as a priority for leaders.

Atlanta voters are preparing to elect a new mayor and replace nearly half the City Council. In this moment of transition, WABE is exploring “The Future of Atlanta.”