HIV stigma still a problem in Augusta

Nearly half the people with HIV live in the South and more than half of those with the disease who do not know they have it also live in the South. With World AIDS Day on Friday, advocates talk about the difficulty in getting people in the Augusta area to be tested due to the ongoing stigma.

 

National groups are also announcing millions in grants to groups in Georgia and elsewhere in the South to provide support and services.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Johnson &Johnson and Gilead Sciences and others announced today that they are creating the Southern HIV Impact Fund of $2.65 million to fund grants to 44 groups across the South, including four in Georgia. The South has 44 percent of the people currently living with HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this week that an estimated 50.5 percent of those with HIV who have not yet been diagnosed live in the South as well.

The authors of that study say it was based on estimates from urban areas and the rates in rural areas might even be higher. That makes sense to those with the Ryan White program at Augusta University.

“With the area that we serve, we serve 13 counties, and a large percentage of those areas are rural areas as well and there is not that access to transportation and getting into a location that actually does the testing,” said Karen Denny, grants program manager with the Ryan White program. They try to combat that with an outreach program and a mobile van that goes around to health departments to provide testing, and education about the disease and about prevention. Each county has a health department that can also provide HIV testing, for instance, but people may not know about that or have access to transportation to get there, said East Central Health District Director Stephen Goggans.

And in this area, they are still battling an old foe.

“I truly think it goes back to the stigma still,” Denny said.

“I think the stigma is still present,” Goggans said. “It has lessened over the years with more public education but it is still certainly a factor and it may be more of a factor in particular communities or particular groups of people. That is at play as a barrier to get people tested, that’s for sure.”

With 2,741 new cases of HIV in 2015, Georgia had the fifth highest rate behind Florida, California, Texas and New York. There were 95 new cases in the East Central Health District of 13 counties surrounding Augusta, and 2,148 people currently living with HIV in the district, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. But there are likely many more who do not know they have it, Denny said.

“They’re still out there and the disease is still being spread,” she said. For instance, a report last year from Emory University ranked Columbia and Atlanta in the top five in terms of HIV patients.

“And we’re right there in the middle of that,” Denny said. “I think it is a matter of just not finding them.”

When they are diagnosed, those patients can call on a wide variety of resources at the AU program, with eight providers and access to help with other problems such as substance abuse or referral out to others, she said. The program prides itself on being a “one-stop shop” for those patients. And once patients get into regular care, the results are remarkably good – in Georgia, 84-85 percent of patients in regular care in 2015 achieved viral suppression, according to a Georgia public health report. But somehow that message may not be reaching potential patients, Denny said.

“The strides that we’ve taken, even in the last 10 years with medications, it’s not out there,” she said. “We’re down to one pill regimens, where people were taking 30 pills (a day) at one point. There are six options that are single-pill regimens (per day).”

But that outdated perception of a difficult regimen of many pills with significant side effects may be lingering among some who fear getting tested, Goggans said.

“I think there is probably still a perception that it is a very burdensome kind of treatment with a spotty outcome when in fact it is actually so much simpler than it used to be and so much more effective at the same time,” he said.

In fact, the treatment has become so successful that patients are more likely to die from things like cancer or heart disease than from their disease, Denny said.

“They have the ability to live a full life with their medication,” she said.

 

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

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