By Ryan Clarke
I have had the pleasure of being a part of AIDS Project Ri/AIDS care Ocean State for the past years as a volunteer on the board and committees. 5 years ago, my friend who works for the department of health here in Rhode Island, invited me to an informational meeting about creating a gay men's website for the organization. As I started to work more closely with APRI. I wanted to learn as much information as possible and to get it to as many people as possible. The site now is more inclusive to the entire LGBTQ community. It provides quizzes for if you are at risk, information on anonymous testing, LGBTQ friendly doctors, treatments, counseling etc. Most importantly that we are here for you and you are not alone. The information about testing, medications and the countless services that are out there has been mind blowing. I want to tell you more about what these two organizations do but first let's get back to some basics about HIV/AIDS.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It can only infect human beings and will weaken your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection and as a virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in a body as its host. Once you have HIV you have it for life, but with proper treatment you can keep it at a low level. (www.cdc.gov)
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. It is acquired it is not inherited. A person with HIV is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system has reached a certain level of deficiency or is not working the way it should. HIV is spread through certain body fluids through physical contact or by intravenous drug use. These fluids include blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk. (www.cdc.gov)
If you go to AIDS Project Rhode Island's website you can take a quiz that says am I am at risk? This test is to help determine how often you should get tested. If you are a high sexually active person you may want to think about getting on PREP. What is PREP you ask? Prep stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis which helps to prevent the spread of infection or disease. It must be taken once a day everyday along with other prevention methods such as condoms. Currently this pill is called Truvada. The risk of getting HIV is 92% lower for individuals who take prep daily along with other methods as previously stated like condoms as well as regular testing. Yes you should still use condoms and get tested frequently. If you have a partner you should get tested together. I have a lot of friends who say their health insurance will not cover prep or that its still very expensive. PREP is is covered by most insurance companies but you may seek assistance from Gilead who makes the pill. They do offer a patient assistance program to those who cannot afford it. Visit www.GileadAdvancingAcess.com or call 1-800-226-2056 Monday Through Friday from 9am to 8pm.
If you believe you have been exposed to HIV PEP is also a method to assist for emergencies only. PEP is post exposure prophylaxis which means taking antiretroviral medicines after potentially being exposed to HIV and to prevent becoming infected. As I stated this is only for emergency situations and must be started within 72 hours after a possible recent exposure to HIV. You may go to your primary care doctor or an emergency room to receive PEP. If you have been sexually assaulted and are prescribed PEP you may qualify for partial or full reimbursement for medicines and clinical care costs through the office for victims of crime which is funded by the US Department of Justice. Visit www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/pep.html for more state specific information. If you are a highly sexually active person you may want to consider getting on PREP.
Now let's discuss some of the services provided by APRI and ACOS. They both provide a variety of services such as anonymous testing. Take Charge! Get tested! by APRI is a testing program which includes HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis. You are provided a safe and comfortable environment when tested. There are various on site times you can walk in for testing or you can also call to make an appointment. The rapid test gives you results in 20 minutes. It is a painless test no drawing of blood. If you are feeling nervous there is a questions/answers section on the website including information on LGBTQ friendly staff, parking, as well as about bringing a friend for support. Taking the am I at risk test mentioned before is very helpful in knowing how often you should get tested.
If your result comes back reactive, you will need to get a confirmatory blood test. If it is determined you are positive, you will then need to seek medical care from a doctor. You are never alone. Our organizations will help and guide you through the process. It is important to know that you can live a full life even if you have HIV. Other services that are provided are group counseling, psychiatric care, case management related to emergency financial assistance, nutrition, health insurance etc.
Locally in Rhode Island AIDS Care Ocean State helps to provide housing for persons living with HIV at an assisted living facility called the Sunrise House. It is designed to offer clients a family atmosphere while providing essential care to encourage a healthy lifestyle. It includes medical adherence, case management, social support in a drug and alcohol free environment.
ACOS also provides a Needle Exchange program locally. The goal is to lower the risk of HIV transmission through IV drug use. A team travels to multiple areas of the state to offer counseling, prevention and education as well as referrals for substance abuse treatment. Every 9.5 minutes someone in the US is infected with HIV. It is important that we keep working on bringing these numbers down and providing as much education and information as possible. This is not possible without funding as well as volunteers.
In Rhode Island, we had our 2018 AIDS Walk/Run for life on Saturday April 21st. This is the first time we incorporated a 5K run in the event. It is a great event where teams can be created and fund raise together and there are local government officials who come and speak. Each year a person who has HIV/AIDS tells their personal story which is always very empowering for everyone to hear. Seeing your community come together at countless events taking the time out of their busy schedules to help raise money for this cause is just absolutely amazing and continues to warm my heart everyday. It takes a team of heroes to get to zero! Get out there and get tested. Know your status. Learn more about your local HIV/AIDS prevention organizations. Get out there and volunteer and make a difference. Lets all come together in the fight to get to zero!