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A look at the State of HIV through the eyes of Samaritan Ministry…

With the end of 2016, we are taking time to reflect on what we have seen in the course of a year in the HIV world, and as we are providing leadership and care for many of the most marginalized in our community. What have we seen in 2016? What does the view from Samaritan Ministry look like?

Well, there is lots of good news!

There have been notable advances with HIV medications. Even in this one year we are seeing new formulations of medications that are better at fighting HIV and better for people who take them. In 2016 new single tablet regimens have been developed and new formulations of some of the “good old pills” have hit the market.

Research continues with new drugs and combinations and the drug companies are trying to become more consumer friendly as they work to bring new products to market.

However, there is the need to watch closely and to use the consumer protections that are available so that new drugs and their uses are the best they can be. An example of these protections is the Good Participatory Practice (GPP) guidelines, which provide for broad stakeholder involvement in HIV research. Even in 2016, advocates need to be diligent about drug safety.

While PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) has been around for a while, it has taken new flight in 2016 with many more men and women taking this medication to prevent HIV infection. PrEP is big news and it works.

PrEP is a drug combination (Truvada) that can be taken daily to prevent an HIV infection, even though there may be risk. Research has found great, though not 100%, success with this new prevention tool. [Find out more at http://www.whatisprep.org and at cdc.gov/hiv/basics/prep.html.]

Treatment as Prevention is probably the biggest news out of the HIV world in a long time. We know now that the successful viral suppression for the HIV patient means that they will not transmit the virus to another person. This state of viral suppression, commonly called “undetectable” is always the goal of HIV treatment.

We can truly say that “Undetectable” equals zero transmission. Read more from Poz Magazine at Undetectable and No New Transmissions.

Transgender Issues have really been getting a lot of attention in the past year. Many of our favorite publications, such as Positively Aware, HIV Specialist, and ACHIEVE, have devoted space to the special needs of the “Trans” community, a community that is both heavily impacted by HIV and the target of fierce stigma and discrimination. Check out the July 2016 issue of HIV Specialist for interesting perspectives in HIV care for transgender individuals.

One piece that has really gotten our attention is the Hepatitis C Epidemic in the rural geographic region we usually define as the Appalachian region. This corridor stretches from North Georgia through East Tennessee, Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and West Virginia. This surprising development has had a big impact on the Tennessee Department of Health and had led Samaritan Ministry to focus on Hepatitis C in much of our work in 2016. See our Newsletter for more information.

There are some things that are just not good news and cause grave concern to many of us who work every day to bring an end to this epidemic. Every day we see that stigma and ignorance still exist as related to HIV. Thirty-plus years into the epidemic we are still seeing HIV positive people, (and transgender people, as mentioned above) face discrimination in housing, in the work force, and still many Christians and churches are unwilling to allow LOVE to be the guiding force behind issues related to HIV, including homosexuality and gay rights.  It is important for Christians to stand against injustice and to make noise in the face of hate. As a great positive example, take a look at the statement from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) in the wake of the shootings at the gay club in Orlando. Samaritan Ministry is a proud CBF partner organization. Read the Statement here.

In most states, there are still HIV specific laws that are antiquated and exist in spite of new science and understanding, providing harsh punishment to people solely based on HIV status. The SERO Project provides great information on this topic.

Many states, including Tennessee, make sex education difficult for our public schools, leading to continued, and now generational, ignorance about the basics of HIV. HIV continues to spread in America at about 40,000 new cases per year. Science based, comprehensive, sex education is the best defense against this continuing epidemic.

And… did you know that it’s not AIDS any more?  Actually the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) has fallen on hard times as medications and other treatment advances have made living with HIV possible, so that AIDS may never occur. [You may have noticed that the only use of the AIDS acronym in this article is in this paragraph as we talk of its demise.] Actually, the term AIDS carries a big load of baggage including fear, stigma, and death that no longer SHOULD be a part of the discussion about LIVING with HIV.  As an example, the federal government’s HIV information website has changed its name from AIDS.gov to HIV.gov. While AIDS has not gone away, the US Department of Health and Human Services says, “ today, people with HIV who are diagnosed early, linked to care, start antiretroviral therapy (ART), and take it as prescribed, can achieve life-long viral suppression that prevents HIV infection from progressing to AIDS.” [from blog.AIDS.gov]

So, what does this mean for 2017?

Will there be an end to the HIV epidemic? Could be. New York State has embarked on an ambitious plan to end HIV in their state by 2020 and they are making some remarkable progress. One of the concrete ways that we can see the epidemic ending is to bring many more people who are HIV positive into the “virally suppressed” category. As mentioned previously, people with suppressed virus will not infect another person. Nationally, the number of PLWH (people living with HIV) who are virally suppressed hovers around 25 – 30% and this is not nearly good enough. In New York, however, this percentage has risen to 62%. We think this proves that it IS possible to whip HIV. Find out more about the New York plan.

Will there be a cure? Tougher question.

Curing HIV is not simple. Remember, some very smart people have been trying to find a cure for more that 30 years. What we do know is there are some remarkable happenings, from the Berlin Patient to something called broadly neutralizing antibodies, which show researchers that curing HIV is a goal that still merits money and time. There is a lot of cure research going on now, and it is pretty exciting.

Where does Samaritan Ministry fit in?

It is important to talk about Jesus Christ and the specific ways that our ministry is working to show God’s love to people. For us it is Golden Rule stuff, but more than that we see the Gospel story as a story of love and redemption. We see Samaritan Ministry as an extension of the life of a Jewish carpenter who modeled love for those that were untouchable, unlovable and outcast. We seek to show love where people are. All people. No boundaries. We are all one in Christ Jesus.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

So, what are we going to do in 2017?

  1. We will show up…
    • To share HIV and HCV facts with hundreds of members of our community whenever and wherever we have the opportunity.
    • To BE the presence of Christ in our community.
  2. We will be bridge builders and we will collaborate…
    • Through our partnerships with a vast array of groups across the country. These partnerships will be defined not by how we are alike, but that our central focus is on ending HIV in our communities.
  3. We will serve…
    • Making more than 2000 individual contacts in 2017.
    • Hosting 24 HIV Support Group meetings
    • Providing food, emergency assistance and glasses to those in need.
    • Providing HIV testing to at least 300.
    • Providing HCV testing to at least 500.
  1. We will lead…
    • Through organizations like CBF, The Tennessee Department of Health, and the FAITH Coalition.
  2. We will speak for justice…
    • Working with our state legislators to promote justice and to seek positive changes in laws.
    • For those without power and voice.

Won’t you pray for our ministry work in 2017?