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'Wilhemina's War' Explores Barriers To AIDS Treatment In U.S. South


More than a million Americans are now living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. For some people, it's a serious but manageable condition. In the rural South, many struggle to get treatment. The Independent Lens documentary "Wilhemina's War" explores that issue. It airs tonight on PBS. For NPR's Code Switch team, Alexandra Starr reports.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Six years ago, filmmaker June Cross was shocked to learn that nearly half of all new cases of HIV were in the South.

JUNE CROSS: I was like, wow, what's going on here?

STARR: Cross investigated to find out for herself. That's how she met Wilhemina Dixon of Williston, S.C. In this scene, Dixon shares her story in a black church in nearby Orangeburg.


WILHEMINA DIXON: First, I'd like to thank the reverend for having us here, and I came this morning to ask you all to listen at me since AIDS is in my family.

STARR: HIV struck two generations in her family. Her daughter, Toni Dicks, contracted the virus after years of drug use. She passed it onto her own daughter, Dayshal Dicks, who was born HIV-positive. Toni has since died. Dayshal, who is now 21, says Wilhemina Dixon has always been her caretaker and confidant.

DAYSHAL DICKS: Whenever I have problems, I go talk to her. She's, like, my best friend.

STARR: And her sole support. Dixon works several odd jobs, earning about $12,000 a year. It's all part of her fight to keep Dayshal from falling victim to a grim trend. AIDS is now one of the leading causes of death for African-American women of childbearing age. As June Cross explains, there are a lot of different factors behind that.

CROSS: Unemployment, poverty, lack of education, lack of access to health care. In a larger sense, it's become one more way that we can measure inequality.

STARR: You see this in the experience of Dixon's family. They had difficulty navigating the health care system, finding doctors. Even getting to the doctor was a challenge. Cross says Dixon had to drive her granddaughter 90 minutes each way for her appointments.

CROSS: There's about one doctor for 4,000 to 10,000 people. There's one county in South Carolina where it's one doctor for 10,000 people.

STARR: But even for those who could get medical care, there's the issue of stigma. Gina Wingood is a professor of public health at Columbia University. She says shame can be an obstacle to diagnosis and treatment of HIV.

GINA WINGOOD: If you have high rates of stigma, people aren't going to go get health care. They're not going to maybe even get a HIV test.

STARR: There are efforts to change this. In the documentary, we meet HIV outreach workers who operate a mobile health clinic. In one scene, an activist talks with an African-American woman who is about to be tested for HIV.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know back in the day, they used to say that this was a white, gay disease. Guess who the face of HIV is now - me and you.

STARR: While there are unique challenges to battling HIV in the Bible Belt, Cross also points to high infection rates in poor urban neighborhoods and clusters of HIV developing in the rural Midwest. Still, she's inspired by people like Dixon who have made fighting AIDS a personal mission.

CROSS: Wilhelmina gave me hope because she just refuses to stop. Dayshal is beginning to find strength to step forward and speak for herself now.

STARR: Dayshal is making a point of sharing her own story.

DICKS: My main motto is, HIV don't have me. I have HIV.

STARR: And she's planning to fight it all the way. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexandra Starr

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