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HIV/AIDS: A growing Atlanta epidemic

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New research reveals that there is an Atlanta HIV/AIDS epidemic, sparking concern in students within the demographic of people identified as at risk for contracting the virus.

Approximately half of newly diagnosed HIV patients in Atlanta have AIDS, according to testing conducted by Grady Hospital.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated individuals ages 13 to 24 are the leading population for approximately 26 percent of new HIV infections in the US. The CDC also states Atlanta is ranked the fifth highest city for new HIV diagnoses in its 2013 report.

Andres F. Camacho-Gonzalez MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University, said he believes these statistics are indicative of a HIV epidemic in Atlanta, which he defines as a high number of new documented HIV infections.

“Grady’s ER is diagnosing a lot of new patients by routinely testing everyone that comes to the ER,” he said. “However, we are making the diagnosis late because of prior missed opportunities.”

Grady Hospital started performing routine HIV testing on all emergency room patients in 2013. Since then, an average of 1 percent of their patients — two or three patients a day — have tested positive for HIV, according to WABE.

Camacho-Gonzalez said because of late diagnoses, patients can already develop advanced stages of the disease.
Untreated or undetected HIV can progress to clinical AIDS after eight to 10 years, according to WABE.

Late virus detection and the epidemic’s scale

Estimated rate of new HIV infections
by demographic, 2010 (according to the Centers for Disease Control):
Black males: 103.6
Hispanic males: 45.5
White males: 15.8
Black females: 38.1
Hispanic females: 8.0
White females: 1.9
(represents number of infections per 100,000 individuals)

Dr. Abigail Hankin-Wei, head of Grady’s FOCUS HIV testing program, said approximately 8 percent of the population within the hospital’s zip code are infected with HIV, according to WABE.

These statistics portray a history of Atlanta’s battle with HIV and AIDS. A decrease in media coverage could be a contributor to the extended epidemic, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB).

“Today, thanks to new medications, HIV infections and AIDS are no longer the death sentence they once were,” a GPB article states. “That may be the reason AIDS has fallen out of the media spotlight. But that doesn’t mean the virus has gone away.”

Ashley Blake, a Georgia State sophomore, said she believes her peers are unaware of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and may also lack concern.

“Even if we gain more knowledge, the question is still, ‘Are we going to stop?’” she said. “How is that going to change? It’s a matter of if this generation is given that information, are they going to listen.”

Blake also said many students do not suspect their sexual partners could be infected.

“You just don’t expect that they might have HIV, especially if its your partner,” she said.

While residents of Atlanta may be at risk, the number of individuals infected nationwide is also increasing.

“1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV — and nearly one in seven of those are unaware that they are infected,” the CDC states in a fact sheet about today’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Due to late diagnoses of HIV patients, CDC representatives said it is difficult for life-extending medication to still be effective once the virus has progressed to advanced stages.

“Among those initially diagnosed with HIV infection during 2012, one-quarter (24 percent) were simultaneously diagnosed with AIDS, indicating they were likely infected for many years without knowing it. These late diagnoses represent missed opportunities for treatment and prevention,” the CDC’s website states.

Changing the stigma

Out of more than 2.1 million Americans with HIV:
1,000,000 know they are infected
478,000 are seeing an HIV doctor
442,000 are receiving treatment
362,000 have a very low amount of virus in their bodies
This means only 30 percent of people with HIV are keeping it under control.

Neena Smith-Bankhead, vice president of research and education at AID Atlanta, an agency supporting those living with HIV and AIDS in metro Atlanta, said a negative stigma about the virus could contribute to fear of discussing it and utilizing available resources, according to GPB.

“One of the things I think we constantly see are populations that are heavily impacted with HIV afraid to have the conversation, afraid to ask the questions,” she said. “Because there’s also a fear that if I ask the questions, I must be engaging in something that is not acceptable or already is a stigmatized behavior.”

Georgia State freshman Kaelyn Holmes said everyone should be aware of the statistics of the epidemic.

“To improve students’ knowledge and awareness of their sexual health, I think that they should just go by the saying: no glove, no love,” she said.

Graduating senior Eric White said he was unaware of the statistics surrounding the AIDS epidemic in Atlanta and that the numbers were quite startling.

“I think it’s pretty frightening how little we hear about things like that,” he said. “And that there’s not any information that seems to be super available on campus.”

White also said if students are not already infected, many do not want to discuss the topic of HIV/AIDS.

“Nobody wants to go looking for something like that,” he said. “Nobody wants to know about that kind of stuff, because it’s scary. Many people aren’t going to go out of their way unless they think they already have [HIV/AIDS].”

On-campus resources

Georgia State offers free HIV testing through the Student Health Promotions department at 75 Piedmont Ave.
The Student Health Promotions’ website states testing is painless and results are ready within 30 to 45 minutes. Testing is available Monday through Thursday during regular business hours.

Johnny Gossett Jr., health educator with Student Health Promotions, said he feels students are aware of on-campus resources and use them frequently, as the department advertises services in numerous ways.

“We have several events on campus such as Worlds AIDS Day and Dorm Storm which are on campus HIV testing in the dorms,” Gossett said. “At each of our events we promote safe sexuality.”

Although there are testing resources on campus, White said he is not aware of them.

“You walk around campus, and there’s a million different things in our faces when we’re here,” he said. “I think with students, things have to be in our faces. So things probably need to be a little more abrasive and upfront.”

White said he believes improving visibility could lead to a change in this negative stigma that exists when discussing HIV/AIDS.

“If someone had a stand out here [at the Library Plaza] with ‘AIDS Epidemic in Atlanta’ with real statistics and pamphlets, that would do something,” he said. “That would at least make people think, and we could start to have the conversation — because right now we’re not even having the conversation.”

However, in the last two semesters, Health Promotions has tested over 200 students, according to Gossett.
Gossett said he feels like while students are not a large population infected by HIV/AIDS, they should still be aware of the epidemic.

“They are still at high risk because the student population at Georgia State University is in the age group of those infected,” he said.

Camacho-Gonzalez said early testing and prompt diagnosis is essential for two main reasons.

“First, patients will be placed in medical care avoiding secondary consequences of the disease,” he said. “And second, by placing patients in proper treatment, we can also decrease transmission to others.”

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