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Elton John AIDS Foundation renews grant with UMMC physician

Published on Thursday, January 15, 2015

By: Dustin Barnes

Published in News Stories on January 15, 2015

The Elton John AIDS Foundation will renew its financial support for building access to HIV-health services through a program based out of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

In an award letter to UMMC officials, the foundation stated one of its driving reasons for allocating additional funds to the area was based on the alarmingly high rates of HIV diagnoses in Mississippi and lack of education on the topic.

The foundation informed Dr. Leandro Mena, associate professor of medicine in UMMC’s Division of Infectious Diseases, of its decision to fund his work with young African-American males. The grant award marks the second consecutive year Mena has won support for his vision of eliminating HIV in Mississippi.

“Young African-American men who have sex with men are one of the most disproportionate groups impacted by HIV in the United States,” said Mena, who also serves as the director of the Center for HIV/AIDS Research Education and Policy at the Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities. 

Additionally African-American men age 14-24 in Mississippi experienced the largest increase from 2006-2011 when compared with any other group, he added.

The $60,000 in grant funds will go toward improving access to culturally and clinically competent health services across the state, specifically toward HIV-preventive services for Mississippians who are most at risk, said Mena.

Portrait of Dr. Deborah Konkle-Parker

It’s important to understand that HIV is not a terminal illness, said Dr. Deborah Konkle-Parker, medical director of the Mississippi site of the AIDS Education and Training Center.

But fears of not being able to afford medication can lead some to avoid getting tested, she said. And a lack of understanding about HIV can often put people at a higher risk.

Thus, educating the community about HIV and its risks is a crucial tool in lowering the state’s rates of new diagnoses and mortality – among the highest in the nation, said Konkle-Parker.

During the last several years, Jackson has been ranked among the top 10 metropolitan areas for HIV infections. And Mena said for men ages 14-24, Jackson has ranked No. 2, second only to Memphis, Tennessee, for HIV rates.

 “HIV disproportionately affects African Americans in Mississippi, where 75 percent of new HIV cases are among this population,” said Mena. 

 “This grant provides the funding that allows us to continue to work with health-care providers throughout the state building access to HIV prevention and care services for those most at risk of infection. This work could not be accomplished without the support of our partners, such as the Mississippi Primary Healthcare Association, the Mississippi State Department of Health, My Brother’s Keeper, Inc., the UMMC AIDS Education and Training Center, the Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute, and the Fenway Institute (in Boston),” said Mena. “Together we are educating health providers and the community at risk to improve both the access and the utilization of those services.  

“We want to make sure those who need HIV prevention and care services can have access to them regardless of where they live,” added Mena.