CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte is the place to play, but according to the new county health director, all that fun people have at the city's sporting events, bars and clubs, is contributing to the city's high HIV rate.
Gibbie Harris, the new director of Mecklenburg County's Health Department, told the county's board of commissioners at a meeting last month that one of the reasons why the county has an HIV rate that doubles the rest of the state is because it is home to Charlotte.
"It can be a party town," Harris said. "It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend and then leave, but then leave stuff behind."
Harris is now coming under fire from critics who say her comments are promoting stereotypes and stigmas that people who contract the virus must be sexually promiscuous.
"I think because stigma is a such a huge contributing factor to HIV rates in the south, I'm not surprised that there's a backlash," said Debbie Warren, founder and executive director of RAIN, an organization that helps people in the Charlotte area living with HIV.
Warren believes Harris' comments were "off the cuff remarks" but she is hopeful they will lead to a bigger conversation about the true causes for the high rate of HIV/AIDS.
"We aren't talking about it," she said. "We aren’t talking about the impact... Here in our office, we see grandmothers, mothers, brothers and sisters."
Statistics show, most of the new cases in Mecklenburg County are in people under the age of 34. African-Americans comprised 70 percent of the new cases of HIV; 80 percent were men.
Warren believes the communities most impacted are ones that have a lack of support services. Many people who don't know about the care that exists can't get access to that care or are too afraid to admit they need it.
Harris did offer several reasons for the high rates in Mecklenburg County, including the size of the city and the need for more resources.
"You can peel this onion, and peel it and peel it," she said.
County commissioner Vilma Leake agrees more needs to be done.
"I've been wearing this red ribbon I have here for almost 30 years daily because I have a son who died of AIDS," Leake said, fighting back tears.
She believes the county does not provide more funding because so many of the HIV/AIDS patients come from poor and minority backgrounds.
"This has not been our priority for Mecklenburg County at all," Leake said sternly.
When asked whether Harris wanted to clarify her comments about Charlotte's party scene contributing to HIV, a spokesperson said the director is declining to say anything else.
However, county manager Dena Diorio appears to be doubling down on Harris' comments, saying:
Gibbie was referring to events in large metropolitan areas that attract crowds of residents and visitors where higher-risk behavior could occur. She has direct knowledge of these in Wake County and along the east coast, and has heard anecdotally that they also occur in Mecklenburg County. Public Health will continue working with residents and visitors to encourage them to protect themselves and others.
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