Lack of access to healthcare prevents ATL members from getting tested for HIV

Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

A Feb. 9 study by 11Alive found that while the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) poured millions of dollars in a failed project, it cut hundreds of thousands from HIV prevention programs. Atlanta has scored top ranks in HIV levels for over three years, placing the Metro area among third-world country levels.

Specifically, in 2016 over $700,000 was cut from the CDC, mostly coming from HIV prevention funding, according to Georgia’s Department of Public Health.

But according to Georgia State’s School of Public Health PhD candidate Jamal Jones, a lack of prevention awareness is exactly the problem.

Jones said that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication is available which can help treat HIV if exposed, however, it is very expensive.

“They recommend PreP for men [who] have sex with men, who have a partner with unknown status, or if you’re involved in injection drug use,” he said.

But for lower-income, “resource-poor” communities which tend to be the hubs of higher HIV levels, access to that treatment and other prevention medication is almost impossible.

“[Atlanta is] considered an urban cluster of HIV cases, so you have several zip codes which have a higher prevalence of HIV, high rate of existing cases of HIV, some are underserved communities, some don’t have the resources available to attack HIV, some of those communities [HIV is] stigmatized,” he said.

Communities that a lot of Georgia State students come from, Jones said.

According to graduate student Victoria Novak, who’s worked in Public Health for the last six years, the lack of access in those areas is exactly the problem, and critical for HIV prevention.

“People should be encouraged regularly by their doctors to get checked and help understand the risk. Once diagnosed, they require stringent counseling and have to take antiretroviral therapy for the rest of their lives,” Novak said. “Many communities in Atlanta don’t have access to the healthcare they need to keep HIV under control, and (…) with the political threat looming of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, with no replacement currently available, it could get a lot worse.”

The stigma of HIV is a major factor that often prevents both students and residents from getting tested, in fear of getting back positive results. And according to Jones, Georgia law doesn’t help get rid of the stigma.

Under Georgia law, “if you learn that you have been infected with HIV, it is a crime to engage in certain types of activity in Georgia. You cannot increasingly engage in sexual contact with someone, share hypodermic needles or syringes with someone, offer to perform sexual acts or engage in sexual intercourse for money, solicit another person to engage in sexual acts for money, or donate your bodily fluids, tissues, or other bodily materials,” according to website Criminal Defense Lawyer. In other words, it’s a criminal offense to pass on certain sexually transmitted diseases in Georgia.

“I don’t think the law necessarily helps, because people are afraid to disclose their status to their partners because they don’t know how the partner will react,” Jones said, adding that the fear of those reactions prevent people from getting tested on time.

“Some people are afraid to deal with a positive test result, (…) how my family will react to it, how my partner will react to it, how will my friends react to it,” he said.

Novak said that despite the drugs available to help manage the infection, people still fear the diagnosis.

“There is definitely more fear in communities that have received less education about the disease, its risk and treatment options,” she said. “But also in some cases, straight men may be afraid to admit they’ve been diagnosed because many people in their community would see that as an admission that they were gay.”

And that’s the reason why, once people in Georgia get tested, it’s often too late. Jones said that a big problem in Georgia is that by the time people choose to get tested, they are already within the advanced stages of AIDS, or they are getting there, so by the time they receive their results, the disease has already progressed.

In partnership with the Georgia State School of Public Health, Jones helped launch a new Georgia State-specific campaign, aimed at increasing the amount of students tested.

Georgia is ranked 5th in the nation for new HIV diagnoses, and according to the campaign’s press release, two-thirds of individuals living with HIV in Georgia reside in Atlanta.

But the problem is one that has brought about multiple efforts throughout the years towards a resolution.

This year, a new Georgia bill hopes to add medical marijuana as part of HIV treatment.

House Bill 65 (HB 65) authored by state Rep. Allen Peake, aims to expand the conditions covered by medical marijuana to include HIV/AIDS.