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Experts Advocate Increased Public Action for HIV Prevention

A day-long conference in Raleigh focuses on the disease.

By Kelsey Tsipis

Over 250 HIV/AIDS advocates attended a day-long conference in Raleigh Tuesday to improve their advocacy skills and meet with their elected officials to talk to them on HIV/AIDS policy issues.

Presentation at Tuesday's conference of HIV/ AIDS advocates

Presentation at Tuesday's conference of HIV/ AIDS advocates, Photo by Kelsey Tsipis

North Carolina ranks 12th highest among the 50 states in cumulative reported HIV/AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – with an estimated 35,000 people living with the disease. Advocates said that while AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence, those afflicted with the disease need better access to affordable health care and drug treatment.

The conference, presented by the North Carolina AIDS Action Network and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, brought together advocates of various social advocacy organizations in a roundtable discussion with leaders across the state on the issue.

Jen Jones of Equality NC began the discussion by fastening the HIV/AIDS health care issue in North Carolina to human rights.

“A lot of people didn’t vote in 2010 and we saw a lot of regressive legislation as a result that affected all of our respective organizations. So Equality NC really had to become a public health advocacy arm,” said Jones.

“Part of our Amendment One platform was that it would take away health care from people. No one was willing to say publicly they were going to take health care away from their average neighbor because it’s a human right.”

Getting people into care

Currently the North Carolina AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) uses a combination of state and federal funds to provide low-income residents of North Carolina with assistance in obtaining life- sustaining medications to fight HIV/AIDS and the opportunistic infections which often accompany the disease.

Persons living with HIV diagnosis in NC, 2008. Image courtesy AIDSVu.org

Persons living with HIV diagnosis in NC, 2008. Image courtesy AIDSVu.org

But as of July 2010, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program has had to raise enrollment standards. The program is now open to new enrollment to individuals who are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, in the past, anyone under 300 percent of the federal poverty level was eligible.

More than 200 people are on a waiting list for the ADAP program as of the end of May.. North Carolina is one of only ten states with ADAP waiting lists, the largest waiting list is in Virginia, with more than 600 people on the state’s waiting list.

Dr. Allen Mask, representing the NC NAACP, said while the state lags behind in an effective health care infrastructure for those afflicted with the disease, the greatest deterrent in treating the disease lies within the state’s social framework.

“One of the biggest difficulties we face in the medical community when dealing with AIDS patients is getting rid of the social stigma attached to the disease,” said Mask. “As a state we have to get to a point where there are less misunderstandings about the disease so that more people are willing to be tested and we can really start to combat the problem.”

According to the CDC, everyone aged 13 to 64 should be tested at least once for HIV. People with multiple partners should be tested at least once a year. Mask also said there needs to be a statewide effort to get more people tested.

Cures from the ballot box

The panelists agreed that voter complacency regarding HIV policy issues and social stigma were the most forthright issues that needed to be overcome. All seemed hopeful that the attention garnered from recent social advocacy campaigns, like Amendment One, set the stage for broader conversations about health care equality in the state, especially among the state’s youth population.

US AIDS map

US AIDS map, 2008. Image courtesy AIDSVU.org

“Thanks to UNC-led research, we now know that early treatment of HIV can reduce new infections by up to 96 percent,” says Lisa Hazirjian, Executive Director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network. “But to achieve those positive outcomes, we need to build public support and political will to advance responsible HIV policies that lead to earlier detection and treatment of HIV.”

The panel members all agreed that collaboration between organizations was the key to effective HIV/AIDS policy change.

“We should be increasing access to better HIV prevention, not decreasing it,” said Melissa Reed, Vice President of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood. “It’s not any one organization’s fight, it’s time we share the load.”

Main image of HIV, Courtesy CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus

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