“We have seen this disease converted into a chronic, manageable disease and people don’t have to be terrified of it,” said Dr. Joseph Masci, Director of the Department of Medicine, who recently returned from the Vatican Conference on worldwide AIDS prevention held in May.
“A 25-year-old man learning he’s HIV-infected – leading to AIDS - with therapy, can expect to live until age 77,” he said. a” 25-year-old man who’s not HIV-infected can expect to live until age 77.
“Now, we even have many HIV-infected women with their babies born free of infection because we treat the mothers-to-be during pregnancy,” he added.
His advice for community members is, “Step up, get a free HIV test and go from there.”
EHC, and other medical facilities, have rapid HIV blood tests with results available in 20 minutes.
Under state law, people will be given the HIV testing along with other prescribed tests and are required to be counseled about AIDS prevention even if their results prove negative.
“The point is to educate people how to safely interact with others and not get infected,” said Dr. Maurice Policar, director of the HIV/AIDS Program at Elmhurst. “For those testing positive, it means getting them quickly into care and preventing spreading the disease.”
The Elmhurst HIV/AIDS clinic, which opened in the early 1980s, is presently treating over 1,200 patients and testing over 20,000 people annually. As a long-term single provider, 50 percent of its patients have been in the program for eight years; some even longer than twenty years. Typically, for those doing well, three annual hospital visits suffice, but others come weekly, as needed.
The “crisis” in Queens is that about 25 percent of HIV-infected people don’t know they are infected. The disease takes ten years and beyond from the infection stage to AIDS, without symptoms, and with the immune system essentially appearing normal.
Treatment has become more aggressive. “Now, we test and treat people earlier – at all stages - even before the symptoms and signs of a depressed immune system appear,” Masci said.
The other part of the crisis is treatment maintenance. “People feel better, get tired of taking the daily medicine, develop complications, become ill and some even die although they are under care,” he said.
To meet this problem, the Elmhurst Treatment Adherence Program provides counseling by a pharmacist and a nurse at the start of treatment and when there is any change in medication.
Health insurance covers treatment costs and there are state-funded programs available for the needy. Despite public awareness campaigns, there are mounting HIV diagnoses for young people and seniors engaging in sexually risky behavior.
“The group with the fastest rising new infections is women of color and some have a single-life partner,” said Policar. “So it’s not only for the promiscuous, drug users sharing needles and the gay community, the average person could be at risk.”
Policar recommends HIV/AIDS testing for all once in a lifetime, at least, and annually for those having sex without protection.
At the Vatican Conference, Masci favored condom and clean needle use together with abstinence. It is something that the Vatican is also considering.
As the world awaits the Vatican Conference report, Masci is happy to have been chosen to be a part of it. “The fact they invited me, and others, gave the impression they wanted to hear all opinions,” he said.
For more information about HIV testing, call (718) 334-3740.