World Aids Day highlights HIV/AIDS, steers away stigma

Becky Campbell • Dec 1, 2016 at 8:19 PM

There was a time when an HIV or AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, but that’s not the case some 30 years after the virus was first discovered.

In fact, Kelley Honeycutt, the retention specialist for East Tennessee State University’s Center for Excellence for HIV/AIDS care, said patients live long and productive lives because of the medications now available to treat the disease. Getting that information out to the public, as well as encouraging people to get tested for the virus, are ongoing battles that received worldwide attention Thursday on World Aids Day.

“World Aids Day is an opportunity for people to show support for others with HIV,” Honeycutt said. “Despite the virus only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million have died, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history. It is very important for people to be aware, to be tested, to know their status and to get into care if they do have a positive diagnosis or if they are identified a high risk. The higher-risk age group is 18- to 24-year-olds.

And while there is no vaccine and no cure, advances in medications can suppress the disease to the point it is no longer detectable in an HIV-positive person’s blood.

There is also a preventative medication, called PrEP, that people who have high risk of contracting the disease can take at the direction of their physician.

“It’s come a long way,” Honeycutt said about the development of medications for HIV/AIDS, and it’s helped decrease the number of people getting the disease.

“In Tennessee as a whole, we’ve had a decrease in new HIV diagnoses by 17 percent. Late stage diagnosis is down 19 percent and deaths are down by 20 percent.”

One of the ongoing issues is awareness, she said, which also helps reduce the social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. 

“It is considered to be a chronic, manageable disease,” Honeycutt said. “People live a long and productive life when they receive care … it’s so important to get the word out.”

The Center for Excellence for HIV/AIDS, which received the designation in 2012, operates out of ETSU Physicians, located on State of Franklin Road, and is funded with the Ryan White Grant, named for a 13-year-old boy diagnosed with AIDS following a blood transfusion in 1984. The office serves about 450 HIV/AIDS patients from across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Honeycutt said. The most recent releasable statistics show that in January 2014, there were 54 new patients at ETSU Physicians —  29 were new diagnoses and 25 were patient transfers from other providers.

“We service, just in this clinic, approximately 450 people,” Honeycutt said. “That is quite shocking to people in this community. They just don’t believe that it’s here. It’s not as high a number as you’d see in Knoxville and Nashville,” but it is significant.

“It’s so important to get the word out. It’s important for people to get tested and know their status and get into care if necessary,” she said.

For more information about HIV/AIDS, visit www.apositivelife.com or www.poz.com, both of which provide reliable information about the diagnosis, according to Honeycutt.

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