Linda Villarosa had spent decades covering the spread of AIDS. She thought she was done. Then, she visited Jackson, Mississippi.
A few years ago, freelance journalist Linda Villarosa thought she was done covering HIV. She had accomplished plenty — front-page stories for The New York Times, articles in Essence magazine. She started in the 1980s when there was little hope for those who had contracted the disease, but now, with the advent of antiretroviral drugs and the steady decline of AIDS deaths in the United States, the story started to feel, somehow, less urgent.
Then, she came across two studies. One from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that if current trends continued, one out of every two black gay men in America would have HIV. Another said Jackson, Mississippi, was essentially ground zero for the disease.
She realized she most certainly was not done writing about HIV.
On today’s episode of The Breakthrough, Villarosa describes how these studies inspired her to travel to Jackson. There, she witnessed how a disease nearly forgotten in parts of the country continues to aggressively spread among gay black men who lack access to the drugs and services that have saved lives elsewhere.
She met Cedric Sturdevant, the project coordinator for a small social services agency called My Brother’s Keeper, who delivers food and medication throughout the Mississippi Delta out of a beat-up Ford Expedition. He serves as a father figure, nurse and motivational coach to dozens of young, HIV-positive men. She met a 21-year-old man who had been taking the preventive drug known as PrEP, but slipped, became infected, and in five months, “looked like AIDS in Africa,” as Villarosa put it.
The story made her feel hurt, even angry, at herself and the institutions that neglected these men in crisis.
“I reported a lot on black women or HIV/AIDS in general — but black men were often the sources,” she said. “I was never talking to them about their own, you know, the epidemic in their own community.”
She has now, in “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic” for The New York Times Magazine.
Listen to how she made it happen on The Breakthrough, the podcast from ProPublica where investigative reporters reveal how they nailed their biggest stories.
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