By Bradley Childs, special to Charleston Currents | We know one of the best ways to combat HIV in our community is go directly to the people most in need of our services. So, over the next 12 months, we will be expanding our HIV testing and prevention efforts into rural areas of Berkeley and Dorchester counties as well as into high-risk areas of Charleston.
To help fund the program, we received a $35,400 grant from the Roper Saint Francis Physicians Endowment, which, in a partnership with the Medical Society of South Carolina and Coastal Community Foundation, provides annual grants to nonprofit organizations for the express purpose of improving health, wellness and access for tri-county area residents. The grants committee focuses on four community health needs, including access to services and coverage for uninsured and underinsured. The committee also gives priority to emerging needs in the community.
Our expansion highlights both of those areas. The Charleston region has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an “emerging community” for its high rate of HIV infections and AIDS cases. In fact, we identified a significant increase in new HIV infections in 2015 with an almost 200 percent year-over-year infection rate. Additionally, IV drug use, especially with opioids, has been increasing nationwide, with rural areas hardest hit and adding risk for further HIV infections.
HIV testing in rural communities helps us reach audiences that are rarely offered HIV tests through their medical interactions and gives us the chance to disseminate educational information to help rural residents make more informed decisions related to their sexual health. Additionally, targeted, high-risk populations need increased opportunities for access to testing and educational programming in communities with reduced access to healthcare, lower income and higher prevalence, such as jails and homeless shelters.
The funding provided by the Roper Saint Francis Physicians Endowment will complement and expand our existing testing, outreach and HIV prevention education, which is funded through Trident United Way, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and private donors.
We can now move beyond offering free testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections four days a week at our office in North Charleston. We fully expect to reach an additional 20 percent by hosting testing events and programs in areas outside our office. That means another 240 or more individuals will be tested and more than 1,000 people will receive educational materials and safer-sex materials to help decrease potential for HIV and STI infections. All newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals identified through expanded testing will be linked to medical care within 30 days.
To manage the extra work, we will add a part-time testing and prevention specialist to perform off-site testing and prevention services two to three times per week. These testing events will focus on partnerships with more than 20 rural health clinics, in-community health providers, wellness clinics and commercial pharmacies.
Many people don’t realize HIV is very much an issue for the Charleston region. In 2015, our agency identified 33 percent of the new HIV infections from the entire statewide pool of those found by community based organizations, even though we only cover about 15 percent of the state population within our service area.
We know the need is great in our community and that we have to reach these rural areas and high-risk populations. Education is key in fighting HIV so the more people we can educate, the more success we have at stopping the spread of this illness.
Bradley Childs is the executive director of Lowcountry AIDS Services. To learn more about the work LAS does in the community, visit www.aids-services.com.
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