Tahlequah Daily Press


June 27, 2014

Free HIV testing still available here; virus no longer a death sentence

TAHLEQUAH — Sex is seldom a topic people choose to talk about, so when a related illness like HIV is a concern, it often reaches epidemic proportions before people seek help.

Fortunately, professional people in the medical and health-related fields not only talk about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, they’re working to educate the community and raise awareness.

Today is National HIV Testing Day, and this year marks its 20th anniversary. The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone between ages 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care for themselves and their partners.

The good news is that people diagnosed with HIV can now live a healthy life when early treatment is received, and they may never develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

The CDC reports, worldwide, about 35.3 million people are living with HIV, with 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV/AIDS today.

Statistics show eight cases were reported in Cherokee County between 1982 and 2012, according to the State Department of Health website, with 2,654 total HIV  cases statewide during the same period. Statistics for surrounding counties include: Adair County, four cases; Delaware County, five cases; Sequoyah County, 13 cases; Wagoner County, 13; and Muskogee, 26.

Keri Ratliff, coordinating nurse at the Cherokee County Health Department, said HIV is something everybody should be tested for as a preventive measure. “Everybody” does not include those in exclusive relationships for two or three decades, as those individuals would have gotten sick by now if they’d contracted the virus.

The CCHD conducts confidential testing as part of a sexually-transmitted disease grant program. The tests are free and given on Mondays and Thursdays on a walk-in basis, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Results are received between seven and 10 days. The tests use urine to check for chlamydia and gonorrhea, and blood for HIV and syphilis.

“We work confidentially to make contact with an individual,” said Ratliff. “If someone tests positive, they’re provided with resources, guidance and therapy.”

Treatment is not provided through the health department.

“We assist with anything the client needs; they are provided with resources for care and coverage,” Ratliff said.

One resource is the Green Country AIDS Coalition, which has been testing since 1985. President Barbara Williams said one in six people, or 180,000, don’t know they’re positive.

“Only one in four people with HIV have the virus under control by treatment, which includes taking medications,” said Williams.

Williams has a clear way of explaining the difference between HIV and AIDS.

“The two are separate. HIV is like having a cold and AIDS is like having pneumonia; you can die from that,” she said.

About one-third of those who test positive and are diagnosed late in the course of infection develop AIDS within a year, she said.

“People who get tested and receive antiretroviral therapy early, it can prolong their lives or help them stay healthy longer. And they may not progress to AIDS,” said Williams. “It is no longer a death sentence like it was in the 1980s.”

Free testing is also available through the coalition. It offers two tests: a finger stick with a drop of blood, which can have results in 10 to 15 minutes; and a mouth swab of the gums for secretions, with results in 20 minutes.

Confidential reports are provided to the Oklahoma State Health Department on a secure website, which includes results, demographics and health risks to keep track of the numbers.

If someone tests positive, a disease intervention specialist will contact the individual and ask him or her to name partners. Officials then contact the partners but do not name the person who tested positive.

“They will say, ‘We have reason to believe you’ve been exposed’; it’s handled very confidentially,” Williams said.

Even with all the progress made over the past three decades, when Williams has a table with educational materials at a health event from the Green Country AIDS Coalition, people will avoid it.

“It’s still taboo,” said Williams. “Today, it’s manageable and treatable; people can live a long, productive life, even though they have HIV and we have long-term survivors with AIDS. I have a friend who has had HIV for 27 years, and never had an AIDS diagnosis,” she said. “And I know someone who’s had AIDS for 25 years and still has good health with treatment.”

They no longer tell people to wait to seek treatment.

“Now, we say start treatment with a doctor immediately,” Williams said. “I know someone who says he’s in better health now than when he was diagnosed with HIV. He said he partied all the time, drank and did drugs before. Since he found out, he’s changed his lifestyle and is in good health.”

People who are healthy when they get a diagnosis will not die of it, whereas someone who is an alcoholic or drug addict has less of a chance for a healthy recovery, she said.


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