The 25th annual World AIDS Day may have been Sunday, but Planned Parenthood clinics across Alaska are recognizing AIDS and HIV all week long.
All four clinics, including the Soldotna location, are offering free HIV testing.
Alaska is considered a “low incidence state” compared to the rest of the U.S., said Jessica Harville, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services HIV prevention coordinator, with 1,482 cases of HIV reported between 1982 and 2012. Currently an estimated 954 people are living with HIV or AIDS in Alaska, she said.
However, Harville said recent research shows people with other sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to contract HIV than those who are STD free. Alaska tops the national charts for chlamydia, according to the State of Alaska Epidemiology, and there has been an ongoing gonorrhea epidemic since 2008 as well as a recent syphilis outbreak, Harville said.
“We’re lucky up here, we have pretty low rates of HIV, but there’s also the potential for HIV up here because of our STD rates,” Harville said.
Other groups that have a higher likelihood of contracting HIV include men who have sex with men and injection drug users, Harville said.
HIV testing options vary based on where the test is done, Harville said, but there are two methods available. Private medical doctors most often test for HIV through a blood draw. The other method is the rapid test, which can be done by a mouth swab or a finger prick. Rapid test results usually are available within 10-20 minutes. If a rapid test comes back positive, a confirmatory test, which is most often a blood draw, is done to confirm the positive, Harville said.
The Center for Disease Control recommends anyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get screened at least once in their lifetime. Harville said during HIV screening, people should talk with the tester to determine, based on risk factors, how often they should be rescreened.
According to the CDC, nationally one in five people who are HIV-positive don’t know they’re infected. Many people are unaware of their status because HIV impacts people differently. Sometimes, when people are first infected, they experience a flu-like viral syndrome when the immune system is responding to the viral infection, but then the immune system levels and some people won’t experience symptoms for “quite a while,” Harville said.
“What I always say is that’s why we really encourage people to make HIV screening part of their routine care and encourage people to take advantage of a lot of the HIV screening opportunities on days like World AIDS Day,” Harville said.
The Soldotna clinic offering free testing this week is located on East Redoubt Avenue and is open Monday and Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Appointments can be made by calling 1-800-230-7526 and walk-ins are welcome as well, according to a press release.
How long people who are HIV-positive can go until their CD4 or T-helper cells, a type of white blood cell, drop below 200, which is AIDS defining, varies from person to person, Harville said.
The best thing people who are HIV-positive can do for their own health and their partners’ health is to see a doctor and start antiretroviral treatment as directed and stay committed to medical care, Harville said. A 2011 HIV study showed that HIV-positive people who are taking antiretroviral treatment for the disease are “very unlikely” to transmit HIV, she said. Medical advances have made HIV treatment simpler with fewer pills, Harville said.
“People with HIV live normal lives,” Harville said. “And, if you are engaged in care and don’t have any complications, you can live pretty much a normal lifespan.”
According to 2012 stats for Alaska about 50 percent people living with HIV are from the Anchorage and Matanuska-Sustina Valley area, Harville said, and 6 percent of HIV positive Alaskans live along the coast of Gulf of Alaska, which includes the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, or Four A’s, is the “key collaborator” in Alaska for people who have HIV or AIDS, Sharron Johnson, director of development said, and provides assistance to infected people living on the peninsula.
The organization helps people living with HIV or AIDS by providing transportation, food, counseling, medical, dental and visual assistance, housing assistance and ensuring insurance stays effective. In an effort to educate and prevent the spread of HIV, the organization holds classes about the disease, distributes condoms and offers rapid HIV testing. Four A’s also has a syringe exchange for injection drug users, not to enable them, but to provide clean needles, she said.
Four A’s has offices in Anchorage and Juneau as well as traveling case managers to assist in rural areas. The Interior AIDS Association, based in Fairbanks, offers assistance in that region of the state.
Johnson said if someone from the Kenai Peninsula contacted Four A’s needing services, the association would set up the individual with a case manager in Anchorage to assist over the phone as well as travel to the peninsula.
The organization owns housing in Anchorage, and works with housing associations to get HIV and AIDS infected people outside of Anchorage into housing, Johnson said.
She said there is a still a “huge stigma” associated with HIV and AIDS, and after diagnosis many people get angry, scared and worried about how people will perceive them, if they will be able to raise their kids, and how long they are going to be able to live with the disease.
“But just because you’re HIV-positive, there’s been so many strides made that it’s no longer looked at as a death sentence,” Johnson said. “It’s actually moving toward more of a chronic disease. … As long as (HIV-positive people) are following the instructions of the doctor, they are able to live long, healthy lives.”
On Sunday, Four A’s held candlelight vigils for World AIDS Day in Anchorage and Juneau.
“We want to make people aware that AIDS is still around and people are still testing positive for HIV everyday, and we still need to practice safe sex,” Johnson said.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.