Staff members from the AIDS Leadership Foothills-area Alliance (ALFA), a Hickory-based non-profit, serving nine northwestern North Carolina counties, are now addressing HIV/AIDS concerns and offering testing in Wilkes.
At the end of 2010, 42 people in Wilkes were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to ALFA Executive Director Rodney Tucker. Those numbers are based on the ALFA client base.
According to the Wilkes County Health Department and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of current Wilkes residents who have been diagnosed with HIV is 38. Wilkes ranks 84th among 100 counties for the number of cases reported. State officials note that “fluctuations in the number of disease reports per year may be influenced by reporting issues.
There have been two new HIV cases diagnosed in Wilkes thus far in 2011, according to the health department. There were five new cases reported to Wilkes officials in 2010, but two of those patients had been previously diagnosed and had relocated to Wilkes.
In 2009, there were two cases reported with one newly diagnosed while the other had moved here.
Nine new cases were reported in Wilkes in 2008. Five were newly diagnosed while the four other cases involved patients who had moved.
Not a ‘big city’ problem
“While many of us may think of HIV as a big city problem, rates of infection are up all across the southern United States,” said Tucker. “The numbers for Wilkes may sound frightening, but there are organizations working on the issue.”
ALFA’s lead partner in providing care is the regional HIV medical clinic, Fairgrove Primary Health in Hickory, a department of Catawba Valley Medical Center. The center was established in 2003 with federal grant funding.
ALFA provides testing, prevention education and case management and is only now “trying to get a foothold” in Wilkes,” said Tucker. Other counties served by ALFA are: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Lincoln and Watauga.
Tucker noted that the virus is harder to contract than most people realize.
“Unprotected sex and sharing needles are the primary ways HIV is spread,” he said. “Mother-to-child transmission during birth or breast feeding also are a risk though prenatal testing and treatment have almost completely eliminated that. Just being around someone with HIV isn’t a danger. Sneezing, drinking after someone, hugging, kissing and using the same restroom don’t spread HIV.
While HIV used to be a death sentence, today health professionals consider it a chronic illness. Medications can keep the virus from multiplying in the body. The virus won’t go away but its destructive path can be stopped or slowed greatly. The same medications that keep basketball great Magic Johnson healthy are available to ordinary people.
Case managers on staff at ALFA help people sign up for a state program that provides these life-saving medications to people without health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare. In addition to keeping HIV-positive people healthy, the medications also lower the risk of transmitting the virus sexually. Case managers also work with clients to get health care in Boone, Wilkesboro and Hickory.
According to Tucker, 37 Wilkes residents are seeking care at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center while five are being cared for at Fairgrove Primary Health in Hickory.
Free programs available
Free programs can be arranged through ALFA for churches, civic groups, schools and other organizations. Health educators also provide testing. The 10-minute test involves a finger stick. Results are provided along with counseling on how to protect against infection.
If the preliminary test is positive, clients are referred to the health department, hospital or other medical facility for a confirmation test.
Based in Hickory
ALFA was organized in 1987 in Burke County as a grassroots effort to provide support services to those infected by HIV/AIDS. In 1989, ALFA was established as a private, not-for-profit, 501 (c)(3) AIDS service organization, with the help of a Burke County United Way venture grant. Now entering its 24th year, ALFA has remained a United Way-funded agency, and currently has a staff of nine full-time employees.
In addition to receiving funds from the United Way in Burke and Catawba counties, ALFA is financed with assistance from foundations and individual contributions. Tucker said he had spoken with United Way of Wilkes officials about possible funding, “but they weren’t in their funding cycle when the request was made, so we will follow up later.”
Funds for patients coping with HIV but who do not have sufficient health care coverage or financial resources come from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. Ryan, who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13, is credited with helping to educate the nation about HIV/AIDS. He died April 8, 1980 at the age of 18.
Tucker explained that ALFA often offers testing at “non-traditional” sites, including community colleges (though services are not currently offered through Wilkes Community College).
“We attempt to partner with a human services professor or the counseling department at the colleges,” he added. “We can talk with students, but we let them ask voluntarily for testing. Everything is confidential, and we arrange for a private space where counselors can meet with the students.”
In Wilkes, he said, “We are looking for partners who would provide sites for us to offer programs and do testing.”
He said that the tests could even be offered in bars and clubs.
“If the owner of such an establishment invited us and provided us with a private space, we would go there,” Tucker explained. “We will go wherever the people are.”
Once the positive test is confirmed, Tucker said, “my staff will follow that person to the first medical appointment to make certain that they get medical care. We will provide medical case management as long as it’s needed. We can help them with drug assistance programs to cover co-pays and make certain that they get the medications they need. There is even money for emergency financial needs and to make certain that they have a stable home life.”
The health care needs for many go beyond HIV.
“With the medications they have now, HIV patients can live long lives,” Tucker said. “Now most have turned their attention to dealing with hypertension, diabetes and heart disease because their HIV is under control.”
To learn more about HIV, testing, case management or to volunteer with ALFA, visit alfainfo.org or call Tucker toll free at 800-473-1447, ext. 224.