HIV blood test tube and prescription on table. (Getty)
Huntington, Charleston and the surrounding areas have seen a cluster of HIV cases in the last several years. It is also easy to point to the factors that lead to the infections. Our area has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. Pills pushed by Purdue gave rise to an unprecedented number of people with substance use disorder. When the prescription medications became harder to obtain, many, in desperation, turned to injection drugs like heroin.
While any opiate use carries risks, simply the method of injecting a substance can increase the chances of harm exponentially. Those who use injection drugs have a much higher chance of contracting HIV or hepatitis while doing so.
In addition, our state legislature has done everything in its power to undermine the public health programs that can limit and stop the spread of blood-borne viruses. By restricting harm reduction programs across West Virginia, lawmakers have prevented patients at risk from accessing sterile equipment and regular testing. This is exactly the kind of situation that leads to the unchecked spread of HIV.
When I was training to be a physician in medical school, I was told that I would likely never see the complications arising from untreated HIV/AIDS. The medications that we use to manage the illness have turned a once fatal diagnosis into a chronic disease. Many patients are living full lives, only taking a single pill a day.
Yet it is still a challenge to find and test everyone at risk and then link those patients to affordable and compassionate care. And this is no truer anywhere than right here in West Virginia.
While many efforts have been made to find and treat the people in our community who have been affected, we are still not doing enough to stop the spread of HIV. There are members of our community suffering from the long-term complications of AIDS. There are people dying of an illness that is treatable and manageable and preventable. This is unthinkable in the richest country on earth in the year 2023.
Consider this column a red flag and I’m waving it. We must do more to stop the spread of HIV in our communities and connect those who have been diagnosed with care.
Testing programs need to be easily accessible and well-publicized. We need more information to combat the bias and stigma still attached to the disease after all these years. We need more compassionate providers willing to go out into their communities and engage patients who may feel hopeless or ashamed with the medical care they deserve. And we need elected officials who listen to the voices of public health experts and doctors on how to keep the citizens of our state healthy and safe.
Testing for HIV is available at your local health department, as well as community-based programs like Harmony House in Huntington. Many of these tests are as simple as a finger-prick or an oral swab. You can also ask your primary care provider to order the screening test for you.
The story of HIV has always been a story of advocacy. It’s our turn to stand up, speak out and ensure that we don’t lose more West Virginians to silence and inaction.
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