Atlanta’s war on HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS has plagued Atlanta for decades. But Mayor Kasim Reed announced July 30 that he has joined a fight to stomp out the deadly pandemic, once and for all.

The mayor signed Paris’ declaration to join the Fast-Track Cities group, a coalition of cities combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in problem areas, according to a news release from the mayor’s office.

The initiative strives to eradicate HIV/AIDS by 2030. But while the group snowballs into something more globally effective, it hopes to achieve 90-90-90 status for all infected patients by 2020, according to the statement.

This means Atlanta must now implement various outreach programs to ensure 90 percent of those infected with HIV know of their condition; 90 percent of the afflicted should receive anti-retroviral treatment, and 90 percent should see substantial viral suppression.

But Georgia State journalism student Tyler Karstensen said he doubts the viability of the declaration’s ambitions.

“I don’t know if eradication that soon is plausible,” he said. “It’ll cost a lot to get so many HIV patients their meds and it seems unrealistic that 90 percent of these people with [HIV] will go out and get tested.”

Embracing the afflicted

The Fast-Tack Cities program endorses more than just research and prevention efforts.

Each signee of the Paris declaration vowed to “end the stigma and discrimination” surrounding HIV/AIDS and its causes. In signage, Reed pledged “to build and foster tolerance,” among the taboo of sexually transmitted diseases within the community. In doing so, the city hopes HIV diagnoses will slow drastically.

Millions of people are infected by HIV each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast-Track cities hope to decrease the number of new infections to 500,000 for 2020 then 200,000 in 2030.

To do so, cities have to reach out and engage the community to help the needy and encourage healthy lifestyle choices, according to the Fast-Track declaration.

City officials will be focusing their efforts on at-risk demographics, such as “slum dwellers, displaced people, young women, sex workers, people who use drugs, migrants, men who have sex with men and transgender people to build and foster tolerance,” according to the declaration.

Donna Smith of Georgia State’s School of Public Health has long researched and advocated for HIV/AIDS prevention. She said the city can accomplish these arduous tasks only with the proper backing and legislative influence.

“I believe that this Fast-Track declaration is very ambitious, but doable with political will and appropriate resources,” she said. “I’m glad to see Mayor Reed and his administration putting energy behind this effort.”

For the moment, Atlanta’s Fast-Track initiatives are in the preliminary sketches, according to a spokeswoman from the mayor’s office.

“We’re just at the beginning,” she said. “One of the first meetings [about declaration plans] is this Friday.”

In the meantime, Smith has been facilitating the work of Georgia State’s Linkage for Care organization.

“The Linkage to Care Peer Guide Training Program trains HIV positive persons from groups hardest hit by the epidemic in Atlanta — African Americans, young Black gay men, transgender women, persons who have overcome addiction and often incarceration– to help link to care the approximately 40 percent of persons who are HIV positive and not in medical care,” Smith said.

One peer guide, Necaela Penn, said she joined after friends enticed her to do so.

“At first I wasn’t going to apply,” she said. “But they said it’s a linkage program that would be good for HIV patients and a lot of activists are trying to get those [prevention and care] programs implemented.”

Since enrolling in the guidance program, Penn said her role entails reaching out to HIV positive patients to connect them with help in a more intimate fashion.

“I talk to the person to get a feel for them so I can direct them to the right location,” she said. “Then I keep in touch with them and keep them encouraged until they receive the care they need. We would find emergency housing, call homeless shelters to see if there are openings.”

Penn has taken up this responsibility to ensure HIV patients can receive a friendly helping hand, rather than a bureaucratic trudge toward treatment.

“It’s a good thing to have peer navigators,” she said. “It makes the patient more comfortable.”

Smith said Georgia State is very involved in the city’s fight against the HIV epidemic. She cited other projects carried out in tandem with Georgia State’s Dr. Richard Rothenberg, the director of the university’s Center for Excellence on Health Disparities and Mary Anne Adams, the Center’s director of community research.

Smith contributed to a HIV/AIDS relief program funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 2013 with the Center. The CEHD’s main focus in such projects is engaging the problem areas where these infectious diseases thrive.

The university was also granted $1.48 million by the National Institute of Health to investigate why HIV is making people go blind, as reported by The Signal in July.

Student’s discourse with Georgia State’s STD screens

Georgia State offers free HIV testing through a partnership with the Fulton County Health Department. But Georgia State junior Nick Sheridan said the school doesn’t market the service well.

“It should be advertised,” he said. “Testing should be offered and promoted like, ‘Hey! Are you not doing anything right now? Come get a fucking STD test!’”

He said better advertising will draw attention to the more morbid realities of intercourse.

“If a [free testing] service was publicized and announced to the people, they’d be more aware and more willing to address the fact that sex can be dangerous and they need to take care of themselves and check up on themselves,” he said.

But the university offered tests are only free for HIV screening. Sheridan said the school should foot the bill for STD tests of all kinds.

“I just called the clinic asking for an STD check and [to check] for HIV and most other STD’s. It cost $50; over $70 to check for herpes too,” he said.

The clinic told him he’d get the same deal elsewhere, but Sheridan said he thinks student fees should cover such vital services.

“Georgia State students are not receiving necessary benefits from visiting the school clinic,” he said.

And students have to pay on the spot, Sheridan said.

“You can’t bill to your Panther account. You have to write a check or bring cash,” he said.

Karstensen said the free contraceptives offered by the clinic indicate the school has acknowledged the student body’s sexual activity.

“Why wouldn’t it be the same for STD checks?,” he asked. “You pay all these fees at Georgia State for all these random services that some use and some don’t. Especially in a college environment, where people have sex a lot, [that setting] is something that should warrant free tests with the fees you’re paying.”

Sheridan said he planned on getting tested but claimed the clinic was booked for most of the week.

“Nothing matched up with my schedule,” he said. “But I was going to go.”

Karstensen said, regardless of cost, vital questions about one’s health should not go unanswered.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Karstensen said. “But some things, you just need to know.”