JACKSON, Mississippi (WJTV) – Treatment for HIV has improved greatly over the years, but Mississippi still has one of the highest rates of infection in the country. And, despite advances in testing and treatment, the state also has one of the highest rates of AIDS, the deadly disease caused by the virus.
WJTV’s Natay Holmes visited a local group that is hoping to change those statistics through new treatment and education.
The Open Arms Health Clinic in Jackson treats both those who are infected and those who are at risk of becoming infected. A new tool in their arsenal is a drug that is effective for many, but about which few know.
Marcus McPherson was diagnosed with HIV when he was 27 years old. At the time he was attending graduate school. He has been living with the disease for the past five years.
“…[F]our in ten gay and bi-sexual men in Jackson, Mississippi are HIV positive… That’s not the scare message, that’s the stat message.” – Deja Abdul-Haqq
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mississippi has the ninth highest rate of HIV infection in the country. Dr. Leandro Mena is Medical Director of the Open Arms Healthcare Center located on East Woodrow Wilson Avenue in Jackson. He says that when ranking cities in the United States, Jackson is the fifth highest for HIV infection. The city, he says, has the highest number of AIDS diagnosis rates in the country.
My Brother’s Keeper is a non-profit whose mission is, according to the group’s website, to help enhance the lives of minorities “through leadership in public and community health practices, collaborations, and partnerships.” Deja Abdul-Haqq is the Interim Director of Community Programs for My Brother’s Keeper. She says, “…[F]our in ten gay and bi-sexual men in Jackson, Mississippi are HIV positive.,, That’s not the scare message, that’s the stat message. The solution is testing, the solution is prevention and care.”
Since being diagnosed Marcus McPherson has been working with My Brother’s Keeper. Abdul-Haqq says, “We realized that the people that we were serving weren’t able to get quality care. Open Arms was an extension of that mission in order to provide something that our communities did not have access to.” Open Arms was the first clinic in the state to prescribe a medication called “PrEP,” for pre-exposure prophylaxis.
The CDC recommends PrEP’s use by at-risk individuals as one of the ways to reduce the chances of contracting HIV. A consumer information sheet about the drug can be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/library/factsheets/prep101-consumer-info.pdf.
The medication was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012. Dr. Mean says, “It can reduce the risk of HIV by more than 92% if taken every day.” Adds Abdul-Haqq, “The likelihood of you reducing your exposure has never been higher than with PrEP. It’s a compete game changer.”
Joshua Agee says he started taking the drug when he moved to Jackson and, like many, had anxiety about being tested. “I was totally freaked out about getting tested. One of my friends invited me an an event, and some guys there invited me to Open Arms healthcare center…to get tested…My test was negative but the doctor came and spoke to me. The doctor said, ‘If you are sexually active and you feel you might be at risk for HIV you should strongly take Truvada as PrEP.'”
“I was totally freaked out about getting tested.” – Joshua Agee
Dr. Mena says the drug is not as popular as it should be because many physicians still do not know about it. “One-third of healthcare providers still do not know what PrEP was…HIV specialists, who typically manage HIV drugs, typically don’t see people who are HIV negative.” The drug is covered under most health insurance. including Medicare and Medicaid. Those who deal with HIV and AIDs every day say that while the drug is an important advance, getting tested is just as important. “You don’t know if you are transmitting the virus if you don’t know you’re positive,” Abdul-Haqq says. “You don’t know how to take care of yourself if you’re positive.”
There is also a patient assistance program for those interested in the PrEP drug who may not have health insurance. Open Arms Health Clinic offers counseling sessions with patients who are HIV positive and those who find out that they are not infected, but might be able to learn more about making healthy choices going forward.
The CDC says, “No effective cure currently exists for HIV. But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled.” The CDC offers e-mail updates for those who wish to receive more information via: https://www.cdc.gov/Other/emailupdates/.