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Mecklenburg County Looks To Churches To Help Stop Spread Of HIV

Alex Olgin / WFAE
Faith Christian Methodist Episcopal Pastor Sandra Gripper keeps the church lobby stocked brochures on a variety of health issues.

"Ten Good Reasons to Use a Condom," "HIV Facts" and "STD Facts" are the titles of brochures on a turnstile in the lobby. No, not in the health department. But in Faith Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in northeast Charlotte.

“You have a captive audience every Sunday,” Pastor Sandra Grippers said. “There’s no better place to get this word out about HIV. It’s not a nasty word. It’s not something you can’t talk about.”

She talks about it with congregants at the traditionally black church, in part, because the disease disproportionally impacts African Americans. According to state data, African Americans made up more than two-thirds of the new infections in the Charlotte metro area in 2017.

Mecklenburg County still has the highest rate of new HIV infections in the state. The county estimates there are about 6,600 people living with the disease in the Charlotte area and in 2017, another 291 were diagnosed. The health department has an ambitious goal of no new infections – and is trying to achieve that with some help from faith groups.

Gripper lost a friend to the disease years ago. Since then, she’s talked about the taboo topic from the pulpit. She even got tested in front of a congregation at a previous church.

She said it shouldn’t matter how someone contracted HIV.

“That’s not the issue. You got it,” Gripper said. “Just because I was a diabetic, nobody turned their back on me. People have cancer — no one turns their back on them. They don’t say, ‘How did you get cancer?’”

She’s working with Mecklenburg County’s health department on its plan to get to zero new HIV infections. The plan includes a pilot project for the preventive medicine treatment regimen called "Pre Exposure Prophylaxis." Patients take the medication once a day, which the Centers for Disease Control says lowers the chances of contracting HIV by as much as 90 percent.

But not many people are taking advantage of the program. County Commissioner Trevor Fuller voiced his frustration at a meeting in December.

“Ten a month,” Fuller said. “Well that’s some progress, but I just don’t know what it’s going to take to get the urgency about this.”

The two-year pilot program is set to fund the treatment for at least 320 uninsured people. But participation has been lacking – in part because of required follow-up visits to get tested every three months. Mecklenburg County’s Health Director Gibbie Harris said the county is trying to get the word out about the program with advertisements.

“We do ads on dating apps, we have actually had some ads on buses,” Harris said. “There’s information that’s being put out by a lot of community partners.”

And the county wants more partners like Pastor Gripper. Harris told county commissioners she’s looking to work with other faith organizations and believes it’s critical to getting to zero new infections.