DHEC: Rural areas the next frontier in HIV fight

 

COLUMBIA, S.C. — State health officials intend to intensify efforts to eradicate HIV by 2030 with an increased emphasis on improving treatment in small towns and rural areas.

The plan was outlined last week at a meeting with federal officials and Midlands community groups working to minimize a disease that no longer is a death sentence for many persons who contract it.

Most specifics of the new approach won’t be settled on for a year, but officials at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) said the plan will include:

  • Expanded recognition of the disease among physicians and increased training in its care.
  • More focus on conditions in jails and homeless shelters to minimize spread of the illness.
  • Increased transportation to medical treatment.
  • More promotion, especially through social media, of methods to avert a disease often contracted during sex and among drug users sharing needles.

Those steps are overdue, said Marilyn Crady of Batesburg-Leesville, a former pharmaceutical industry executive who is an advocate for helping those with the disease.

“Attention has focused on hitting the high spots,” she said. “There are still many things that need to be done.” Addition of local medical clinics able to offer HIV treatment and easy access to those sites are vital, she explained.

In Lexington County, 508 HIV infections were reported between 2005 and 2017, according to a DHEC report. In neighboring Saluda County, there were 20 during that period, the report said.

Federal officials applauded the changes coming. “We know we need to do things differently,” said Laura Cheever, a top HIV care specialist at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. “It’s about reaching the people we are not reaching.”

The anti-HIV effort must include emphasis of safe-sex practices, particularly among teenagers, Ms. Cheever said. “If we can’t talk about sex with younger people, we’re going to be at a disadvantage.” DHEC officials agree that cultural inhibitions often deter needed discussion in schools about averting HIV. “The focus on prevention in South Carolina is so minimal,” said Ali Mansaray, a DHEC official who oversees state efforts to combat sexual diseases.

South Carolina is among seven states targeted for extra federal assistance during the next decade in dealing with the disease. The start of that effort will be modest to see what works initially, but the outlook is promising for curbing the illness, officials said.

Currently, there are 19,749 people in the state with the disease, with just over 14,000 of them men, according to the DHEC report. But new medicines and treatments are making control of HIV “a lot easier than it used to be,” Ms. Cheever said.

Story by Tim Flach / Posted August 1, 2019