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National HIV Testing Day Encourages Awareness And Education

Sean Sandefur

Tomorrow marks National HIV Testing Day throughout the country. It’s estimated that 1.2 million Americans have the disease and about 14 percent of those individuals don’t know they’re infected. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, if HIV is left untreated, it can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, which damages the body's immune system and leaves patients vulnerable to deadly infections and cancer. Although infection rates nationwide have plummeted in the last 20 years, health officials still hope to use awareness to stop the spread of HIV and to treat the roughly 1 in 7 people who don’t know they have it.

Jason Ybarra, the tuberculosis and STD program manager for the Sedgwick County Health Department, says he sees anywhere from 30 to 50 new HIV cases a year in the county. He offers a local perspective on the disease and on National HIV Testing Day:

Credit Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Infection rates are falling: “Actually, the infection rates here have gone down in the past couple of years, and Kansas is considered a low-morbidity state with regards to the rest of the country—and we'd like to keep it that way. But those folks who do test positive, it helps to have low numbers because we are able to get them into care quickly. There's no waiting list for any case management or any federal money that they may need to help pay for those medications and those doctors visits. So we're still very fortunate to have that here in Kansas.”  

On how the disease is transmitted: “About 55 percent of the cases that we see are with men who have sex with men, or (those) having unprotected anal intercourse. About 11 percent have been identified as IV drug users. And that's not just in Sedgwick County, but in a 15-county region. Those statistics in Sedgwick County go right along with what the state sees.”

Credit Kansas Department of Health and Environment

After a diagnosis: “The first thing we do is give them their results. The next thing is counseling—any questions that we can answer for them. The next step is getting them into care. We work with the (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) and care coordinators. Their job is to work with that particular patient that's newly diagnosed, get them into case management and get them into medical care, so that they can begin to start taking medications if they need to and things like that.

While all that is going on, we're working on getting other people in as well. So, if the patient's risk is a sexual risk, or an IV drug use risk, we're trying to locate those folks that they've shared needles with, that they've had sexual contact with, we work to locate those folks and get them in and get tested.”

On living with HIV in 2015: “You know, it's a whole lot better than it was 20 years ago. Right now, there are medications that can prolong life and one can live a healthy, normal life. A lot of people don't know that. A lot of people are still a little apprehensive about getting tested, because (they think) it's a death sentence. And really, it's not anymore. The medications, the advancements have come a long way and if somebody's diagnosed, today, they can live 50 years with relatively low incidence of having to go to the doctor every week or every day or every month. Of course, you're going to have to monitor and be a little more aware."

On working with other local health agencies: "When we have a newly diagnosed patient, with really anything—HIV, syphilis, anything like that—the first thing we do is figure out how can we get these people the resources they need. A lot of us in the community—the Sedgwick County Health department, Wichita State University, Hunter Health Clinic, Positive Directions—we all get together and we go out and do testings and educational presentations.

So, in a community like this, you have to work together to create an atmosphere of education, so that people listen. Because if you're divided and you're hearing it from different locations, different agencies, it's just sporadic. But if you unite and combine, your voice is a little louder.”

See the map below for a testing location near you:

Find more local resources at locator.aids.gov.


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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur