By SARA ARTHURS
Today is National HIV Testing Day. Do you know your HIV status?
Shannon Chamberlin, a registered nurse and director of community health services for Hancock Public Health, said it’s important to be aware of your HIV status. If you are HIV-positive and don’t know it, you could be infecting others.
An estimated 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, including about 162,500 people who are unaware of their status, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, approximately 40 percent of new infections are transmitted by people living with undiagnosed HIV.
Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. Only particular body fluids such as semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, blood and breast milk from an HIV-positive person can transmit HIV, Chamberlin said. These fluids must meet with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream for transmissions to occur.
Hancock Public Health has provided free, confidential testing, but it’s funded through a grant whose contract ends Saturday. From July through December, Hancock Public Health will be referring people requesting free HIV testing to either Allen or Lucas County health departments.
Chamberlin said the agency hopes to know in the near future if funding will be made available to offer the testing in 2019.
Regardless, Hancock Public Health staff are encouraging getting tested.
“There is treatment out there,” Chamberlin said.
Dr. Bill Kose, chief quality officer at Blanchard Valley Health System, said those treatments have improved. When physicians like him had patients 30 years ago with HIV or AIDS, “We really didn’t have anything to do.” There weren’t good medications in existence.
And people were very afraid of getting AIDS, “because it was a death sentence.” Kose said fewer people were applying to medical schools, due to a fear of themselves being exposed.
And doctors even approached care for other diseases differently. Kose said a doctor might have been more hesitant to order a blood transfusion, for example.
Thirty years ago, “There was a tremendous stigma about AIDS,” Kose said. People feared that if they ate the same food as someone who was infected, or breathed the same air, they could get it, although this was not true.
Kose once had to talk with a pregnant nurse who stuck herself with a needle from an HIV-positive patient. “That was not a comfortable conversation,” he recalled.
He said the chances are actually fairly small that you’ll get the virus this way, but that doesn’t make the fear less real. Kose said needle sticks happen less now than they once did, as needles themselves are designed to be safer and health care professionals get more training on how to use them safely. But it’s still a concern.
These days, getting tested early for HIV means you can “start getting treated early,” taking good care of your own health while also preventing passing it on to someone else, Kose said. There are “good, effective treatments now.”
Gary Bright, who now works at Century Health, previously worked at the AIDS Resource Center in Lima, now Equitas Health. He, too, said things have changed in the past several decades. He knows people who are living with HIV who are “doing very well” on treatment. (A call to Equitas Health seeking comment was not returned by deadline.)
But there is still a stigma, and people are hesitant to say they have HIV or AIDS, Bright said.
When people come to Century Health for diagnostic assessment, Bright always asks if they have been tested for HIV or hepatitis C, as it’s better to know that early.
With Hancock County’s ongoing injection drug use crisis, Chamberlin said hepatitis C is showing up locally more often than HIV.
The health department used to offer free hepatitis C testing, but the funding for that program ran out as well. People are now referred to a primary care doctor or an infectious disease doctor. Chamberlin said substance abuse treatment facilities will generally also test people when they come in.
Along with hepatitis C, other infections are becoming a concern. Kose said people still need to use condoms as locally as well as nationwide, doctors are seeing an increase in syphilis and drug-resistant gonorrhea. Kose said it may be that people view AIDS as no longer a death sentence, so they’re not as afraid of having unprotected sex.
“People can die of syphilis,” Kose noted.
And, although HIV medications can kill the virus, Kose said it’s important to use the medications effectively and appropriately. Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, viruses can become resistant to antiviral drugs, he said.