By Joe Severino
Darryl Cannady has long been doing the work needed in southern West Virginia to slow the spread of HIV.
He’s been on the ground for more than 30 years, maintaining a consistent presence in counties that healthcare providers have deserted. Serving as executive director for the Bluefield-based nonprofit South Central Educational Development, Cannady said the perception of HIV has progressed since the organization formed.
When he started, however, folks were quick to dismiss HIV’s presence.
“The community’s perception was, “If I can’t see it, touch it or feel it, then it doesn’t exist,’” he said.
From 1981-1990, 100,777 deaths among persons with AIDS were reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by local, state and territorial health departments. Almost one-third of these deaths were reported during 1990 alone.
During the 1980s, AIDS emerged as a leading cause of death among young adults in the United States. By 1988, HIV/AIDS had become the third leading cause of death among men 25-44 years of age and, by 1989, was estimated to be second, surpassing heart disease, cancer, suicide and homicide.
Once HIV became something people could not ignore, requests for prevention, education, condom distribution and links to health departments for treatment and care increased.
South Central formed as an off-shoot from the American Red Cross. A younger Cannady, who moved from his native state of New York to southern West Virginia, said he was hired to lead their HIV outreach in Black communities.
But Cannady said it was necessary for his small team to eventually split from the Red Cross, knowing the needs of the community did not exactly line with their national image at the time — such as the need to do work in jails and prisons.
“As we moved through the years, requests from white communities [also] began to increase. So although we are a minority-based organization, we started providing HIV prevention to anyone that asked us,” Cannady said.
In southern West Virginia, both Black and white communities face the issue of not having reasonable access to medical care — especially preventative screenings, Cannady said. Over time, workers with South Central noticed how often people with HIV were also living with other comorbidities, such as diabetes or kidney failure.
This discovery helped South Central transition into the holistic health service program it is today.
The group connected people to no-cost healthcare access, as well as introducing HIV-positive folks in southern West Virginia. They shared information, access and experiences to form the closest thing to a regional health network in southern West Virginia.
The work had always been hard, but steady, Cannady said. Until early 2020.
“COVID-19 totally changed the pace of the work we do,” he said.
No coal mine explosion or factory closing impacted the network like the coronavirus had.
“We found clients falling out of care, we found clients moving out of the area. Our client base dropped,” he said.
Opioid abuse spiked. Children and families — already with little options for healthcare — still needed access. Health disparities and comorbidities did not stop because of the pandemic.
South Central has turned to championing a new program called Making Health Happen. Cannady says the program has maintained access to prevention and treatment during the pandemic.
The core goal, he said, is to get people to take their health seriously.
“The goal of the program is to know your health status because if you don’t know your status, you cannot address it,” Cannady said. “What’s important is for rural communities to know their health status.”
Cannady said he’ll be the first one to say there is a long way to go. While acceptance is easier to come by now than in the 1990s, Cannady said there is still a negative regional perspective of HIV and AIDS.
“HIV has never been one of those acceptable diseases down here,” he said.
Accepted or not, HIV and AIDS has continued to spread in southern West Virginia, much like they still do globally. But thanks to Cannady and his team, there is a prevention and treatment network to catch people from falling through the cracks.