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Indianapolis organizations work toward HIV-free future

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In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started an initiative to end the HIV epidemic by 2030. Dr. Virginia Caine, Marion County Public Health Department director, said she believes this is an achievable goal based on the HIV testing, education and medication available in Indianapolis.

As a part of the 2030 initiative, the CDC identified 57 U.S. locations where more than 50% of new HIV diagnoses occurred in 2016 and 2017. Marion County was identified as one.

Caine said Marion County has about 5,000 cases of HIV/AIDS. Of those Indianapolis residents diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, about 2,500 are Black, about 1,650 are white, 500 are Hispanic and 150 are Asian or Pacific Islanders.

According to the CDC website, the organization identified these 57 areas so it could help the places with the highest case numbers before moving on to other areas of the U.S. Alan Witchey, Damien Center president and CEO, said the CDC effort involves a coalition of local organizations, such as the Damien Center, Marion County Public Health Department and local hospitals, working together to address the HIV epidemic using different methods.

In 2020, the CDC awarded about $109 million to these communities to support the development and implementation of HIV programs. The Marion County Public Health Department received about $500,000 from the CDC, which they redistributed to local organizations to assist with HIV education, testing and medication. Black Nurses Association, Indiana Youth Group, Minority Health Coalition of Marion County and Shalom Health Care Center are some of the organizations that received funding.

HealthNet, a nonprofit that provides medical services to underserved communities, received a $100,000 grant from the Indiana State Department of Health in 2020 to fund HIV testing and community outreach. The organization started conducting HIV rapid testing in February, HealthNet program manager Kendrick Washington said. The nonprofit has also reached out to minority populations, such as transgender communities, to provide HIV education.

Washington said education is key to ending the HIV epidemic, especially because comprehensive sex education is not provided in Indiana schools. He said the education provided by HealthNet is centered around learning why the virus is stigmatized and what people can do to either protect themselves or others from HIV.

The Damien Center, an Indiana AIDS service center, has been providing testing, medication, education and support to those with HIV for about 35 years. A new service provided by the center that started earlier this year is harm reduction education, Witchey said. In harm reduction, center employees work directly with people who are using drugs to try to get them to reduce the amount of the drugs they are using and teach them safe drug-using practices, such as using clean needles.

Witchey said this type of education has been proven to reduce crime in neighborhoods and reduce the amount of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and Hepatitis C.

Ashley Jackson, Damien Center HIV/STD testing team lead, said the organization opened a satellite location in February inside Center at Community Alliance of the Far Eastside (CAFE) in an effort to reach more populations around the city. Now, the site is conducting limited testing and should be fully open by the fall.

Jackson said HIV testing is important because it can help prevent spread and give people peace of mind to know their status. Once people know if they are positive or negative, then they can decide what next steps to take to either prevent themselves from passing it on to someone else or to prevent someone from passing it on to them.

Those who test negative for HIV can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication, which reduces the chance of getting HIV through sex by about 99%, according to the CDC. Isaiah Moore, 22, has been taking PrEP for about one year. He said it gives him peace of mind.

Moore took his first HIV test about four years ago through the Damien Center and has taken a test about two or three times a year since. Moore said he was anxious before he went in for his first test, but now he is not afraid because, due to medications and services offered, people who test positive for HIV can live with minimal symptoms.

“Luckily, we live in a time that we can live and survive with HIV with medication,” Moore said.

Many local organizations, including the health department and HealthNet, will participate in National HIV Testing Day on June 27, in which groups raise awareness on HIV testing.

Caine said, for years, resources relating to HIV, such as medication and education, were predominantly given to white patients. This unequal distribution is why the majority of those who test positive for HIV in Marion County are Black people, she said.

Today, organizations like the health department are focusing on providing HIV resources to minority communities, Caine said. Addressing these communities, which is where the majority of cases are, is what will most help the U.S. work toward reducing new HIV infections by 90% by 2030, she said.

Contact staff writer Madison Smalstig at 317-924-5143. Follow her on Twitter @madi_smals.

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