Concern spikes for rise in Tennessee HIV cases related to injection drug use

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – At the age of 18, Ron Crowder was in the U.S. Army and stationed in Vietnam.

A habit that Crowder said he used to keep calm and pass time while overseas eventually transformed into a decades-long addiction.

“When you’re high, you don’t have any worries. You don’t think about nothing else,” Crowder said. “For 20 years, I missed out on life. Pretty much I was asleep for 20 years.”

Crowder’s drug of choice was heroin.

Ron Crowder (Photo: WKRN)

“My only worry was [overdosing] and how to get more,” Crowder said.

After years of using, while Crowder was jailed in Nashville, he said he received a startling diagnosis.

“When I first heard about HIV, my first thought was, ‘I ain’t white, I ain’t gay, I ain’t sleeping with no white, gay men. I don’t have to worry about it,'” Crowder said. “As a result of my IV drug use, I contracted HIV as well as Hepatitis C.”

Crowder is one of an estimated 16,903 people living in Tennessee with a diagnosed case of HIV, according to the latest numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health.

More specifically, he is one of about 2,050 in the state who reported injection drug use likely played a role in contracting the virus whether due to sharing needles or sexual activity with someone who did. That’s 12.13 percent of cases statewide.

(Courtesy: Tennessee Department of Health)

In Metro Nashville, that number is a bit higher — about 16.36 percent — 617 of the city’s 3,771 cases.

(Courtesy: Tennessee Department of Health)

“By sharing needles that have a little bit of blood on it, you can definitely share HIV virus,” said Dr. Bill Paul, the director of the Metro Public Health Department.

Dr. Paul said trends for HIV infection through injection drug use have not spiked in Nashville. There were 7 new cases reported in 2011. That number dropped to 3 in 2013 and went up to 5 in 2015.

The state of Tennessee is a different story though — from 35 cases in 2011, down slightly to 30 in 2013, and more than doubling to 62 in 2015.

“As more people start using heroin and if more of those people start using needles, we need to be on the lookout for an increase in HIV cases,” Dr. Paul said.

Concern over the risk for a rise in HIV infections led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to generate a list of areas prone to HIV spread among injection drug users.

They listed 220 counties, and 41 of them are in Tennessee, while a total of 56 percent are in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Tennessee counties at risk of HIV outbreak due to injection drug use (Graphic: WKRN)

As the Chief Executive Officer of Nashville Cares, Joseph Interrante is an advocate for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Middle Tennessee. The group provides HIV testing, prevention education, and support services.

“We’ve made such strides in reducing the rates of HIV not only locally but statewide that it would just be a real tragedy for us to go backward in that effort as a result of all that,” Interrante said.

Drawing from his own experience, Crowder even started an organization that provides similar services. With three locations across Metro Nashville, Street Works is geared toward helping at-risk groups.

“We try to reach those people that we call the invisible population,” Crowder said. “Most of them are active drug users, sex workers, homeless.”

Crowder said the goal is to help stop the spread of HIV through free testing and other means. For more information on Street Works, you can check out the organization’s website or call 615-259-7676.