One of the region’s oldest organizations dedicated to serving people living with HIV is changing its mission, 40 years after the first American case.
St. Stephen’s Augusta ministry was founded over three decades ago when AIDS, the disease caused by HIV, was still known to be an incurable killer.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was constant talk about AIDS in Augusta,” said Sallie Shuford, Chair of the St. Stephen’s Board of Directors. “We knew people who were sick with it and we didn’t know what to do about it. “
Today, prevention and treatment have advanced so much that “a life with HIV is no longer a death sentence,” said Shuford. But the low profile hasn’t erased the stigma or the emergence of new cases, said new president Jennifer Rahner, whose experience includes working with LGBTQ + youth in the region.
“Working with young people here locally, I have met young people who contract HIV in their late teens, with as long as we know about HIV, AIDS and how to protect ourselves,” Rahner said. “There are still people who contract HIV and AIDS, there is still a stigma around it, there is still discrimination when it comes to workplaces and housing and all that.
With pre-exposure preventive treatments such as PrEP and PEP as well as antiretroviral therapy for the long-term management of HIV, some have let their guard down.
“We have so many people now who think it is a manageable disease that they don’t have to worry about it,” said Jordan Brack, local HIV medical case manager for a clinic. of infectious diseases involved in St. Stephen’s.
“Then they contract it, and they don’t have any care in place; they don’t have anything in place to make sure they’re able to handle it, ”Brack said.
In the latest data available from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Richmond County recorded 74 new diagnoses in 2019 for a total of 1,576 people living with HIV, up from 103 new diagnoses in 2018, when 1,593 were living with HIV. virus.
The Equality Clinic at the University of Augusta currently treats around 1,200 HIV-positive patients, and of the 98% on antiretroviral therapy, nearly 89% are in an “almost undetectable condition,” said Soren Estvold, family medicine resident. of the AU.
About 39% of new cases are black and gay men between the ages of 20 and 29, he said. “This generation doesn’t know how scary the 1980s and 1990s were. He doesn’t have those fears, ”Estvold said.
Demographics for the second largest group of newly infected people are unknown, while the third most common are transgender people, he said.
Augusta Pride chairman William Jenkins said the city’s homeless gay youth population is overlooked by service providers.
Last year, the St. Stephen’s Board of Directors decided it was no longer financially viable to operate its transitional housing and treatment center on Greene Street and sold the property. He also asked providers and community members to complete surveys to help determine where the funds should be spent.
The results of this community needs assessment are available and the most cited are education and awareness, to fight stigma and prevent and treat disease, said board treasurer Isaac Kelly.
During at least four events in Augusta commemorating World AIDS Day 2021 on Wednesday, the board revealed that it will no longer provide direct services such as accommodation, transportation and food to people living with HIV. Instead, it will use its assets to become a grantmaking and fundraising organization, Shuford said. Part of this new focus will seek to increase awareness in the community.
Founded in the late 1980s as the outreach service of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, over the years St. Stephen’s has provided transitional housing and assistance with medical needs and has managed groups support, thrift store and walk-in pantry. In recent years, federal funds to manage group housing for people living with HIV have dried up.
As president, Rahner said her goal is to replace the shame, misinformation and fear tactics of the past, which don’t work.
“My goal is to bring an impartial and not shameful education to our community, so that we can prevent people from catching a virus, but also so that we can change some of the attitudes, part of the stigma around the virus” , she said.