By Positive Impact Health Centers
The AIDS epidemic in Atlanta officially began in June 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control issued their first statement on a disease that would come to be known as AIDS. With only five cases at the time, no one could have predicted the scale of the epidemic that was about to be unleashed. There was no test to determine if one was infected and there was little reliable information on how the virus was spread. Feeling powerless and isolated, many people hid in their apartment or home, some of which were turned into quasi-nursing homes. Some committed suicide.
By the mid-80’s, however, the fear, stigma, and shame of AIDS was beginning to give way to a public health response in the form of proactive care and action by agencies and volunteer groups who began to reach out to those diagnosed and their families. Two of those agencies at the center of Atlanta’s response to the AIDS epidemic were Positive Impact and AID Gwinnett. In March 2015, those two agencies merged to form Positive Impact Health Centers (PIHC) and this year the agency is celebrating its 25th anniversary . Paul Plate, former Executive Director of Positive Impact, in a 2006 interview with WABE radio station reflected on the early days of the AIDS epidemic in Atlanta. He said he realized AIDS had come to Atlanta for the first time in late 1983 or early 1984 while working with a buddy program. There were 10 people in the program at the time. He said there was a feeling of powerlessness, people were not sure what caused AIDS, how one might contract it, and they were not sure about the transmission. People who were sick were being denied services. Doctors, nurses, and ambulance personnel refused to treat people who might have AIDS. Gradually community based agencies became organized and it was the beginning of the empowerment of people with HIV/AIDS illnesses.
The treatment, diagnosis, and stigma of AIDS have come long way since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and Positive Impact Health Centers has been at the forefront of getting HIV/AIDS patients the medical care they need in order to live a longer and healthier life. Olivia Chelko-Long, PIHC Vice President of Development, stated says AIDS is a different disease than when they first started 25 years ago. Serving the 20- county metropolitan Atlanta area, Positive Impact Health Centers’ mission is to provide client centered care to the HIV community by offering a comprehensive program and approach to ending the AIDS epidemic in Georgia. They offer comprehensive support services in the areas of patient support, HIV and STI testing, treatment and prevention, nutrition, medical care, mental health, substance abuse, and housing assistance. The agency has two locations, one in Midtown and one in Duluth. They provide medical care to over 1,000 individuals each year, have over 2,000 visits in various behavioral health and treatment programs, and tests over 7,500 every year for HIV.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. The virus infects a person’s CD4 positive T-helper cells which are white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system. If left untreated, those cells are destroyed to a level that makes a person unable to fight off disease, infections leaving the body susceptible to infections and cancers. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the last stage of HIV disease and occurs when the immune system is severely damaged beyond repair.
Statistics show that the support services offered by PIHC are just as crucial and necessary as when they began 25 years ago. When it comes to HIV infections, Atlanta is the one of the epicenters of America’s AIDS crisis, ranking fifth among metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more. The state is ranked 5th in the number of new HIV diagnoses in the country. The CDC estimates that 1 in 51 Georgians will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime and CDC reports that HIV/AIDS rates in Atlanta, particularly in the downtown area, are as bad as some third world African countries. The two counties with the highest numbers of new infections are Fulton and DeKalb. Fulton County’s rate of new HIV consistently remains at over 600 per year, a number that more than doubles that of metro areas such as San Francisco and New York City.
To combat the high HIV/AIDS statistics, testing, treatment, and risk reduction education is critical to HIV/AIDS patients, all of which Positive Impact Health Centers offers. They also work towards stopping the transmission with diagnoses, not just for patients, but for the entire community. If an individual does not know they are infected, they could be unknowingly transmitting the disease to others which is why the nonprofit places a large importance on its community testing program. They are also committed to providing quick linkage to care for those diagnosed to get the individual on medication not only to save their life, but to stop further transmission. This rapid entry into medical care of those diagnosed is an important prevention technique, because HIV medications also reduces the risk of HIV transmission. If a person is HIV positive and unaware, the viral load is likely very high and means that person is more likely to transmit HIV. Getting an individual quick access to HIV medications reduces the amount of the virus in a person’s blood to suppression levels that are undetectable.
With the goal of reducing the number of new diagnoses in the metro Atlanta area, Positive Impact Health Centers (PIHC) stays abreast of new programmatic and testing methods such as PrEP Program (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and the INSTI HIV-1/HIV-2 Rapid Antibody Test. The PrEP program offers a prevention pill called Truvada that is taken daily by uninfected people who are at high risk of being exposed to the HIV virus. Studies have shown this to be an effective HIV prevention strategy for HIV reducing HIV infection by up to 92 percent% according the CDC. The INSTI HIV-1/HIV-2 Rapid Antibody Test is a rapid in vitro qualitative test for the detection HIV Type 1 and Type 2. It is the fastest test, giving results in 60 seconds with 99.8 percent % efficiency resulting in easier and more effective community testing in high-risk areas of Atlanta. The biggest tool that PIHC and any agency working with HIV/AIDS patients is early diagnosis, and then getting the right treatment.
Behavioral as well as clinical treatment is critical in reducing risk of HIV exposure and transmission as well as helping clients live a healthy and normal life span. To that end, Positive Impact Health Centers provides accredited behavioral health programs to people who are HIV positive as well as negative. Positive Impact Health Centers offers individualized treatment for all phases of substance abuse treatment navigation and counseling in the form of individual counseling through their CLEAR program or in the New Beginnings group counseling program. Individual and group therapy addresses mental health and family reintegration issues through workshops designed to improve emotional maturity and anger management skills framed in the context of achieving positive outcomes in the face of negative emotions. In the areas of housing and employment, the agency links clients to services that seek to overcome barriers in housing and employment. The goal of the behavioral health programs is the successful integration of clients back into their community and the elimination of recidivism.
Despite the seemingly discouraging statistics on HIV infections in Georgia, there is good news. When the AIDS epidemic began, life expectancy post-diagnosis was 18 months. Today, those living with HIV/AIDS are living healthy and normal life spans. There are over 30 medications available to treat HIV. The use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection is called antiretroviral therapy (ART) and involves taking a combination of HIV medicines called a regimen. Most people with HIV/AIDS take a one pill a day regimen that contains a combination of ART. The medications can’t cure HIV/AIDS, but it can help people live longer, healthier lives by reducing the numbers of copies of the HIV virus and therefore protecting the immune system from damage. The use of antiviral drugs has turned a positive HIV diagnosis into a chronic disease rather than a death sentence.
Advances in HIV/AIDS detection and treatment as well as support services have given HIV positive people longer, healthier and a better quality of life as well as reducing the number of new infections. The work of support service agencies such as Positive Impact Health Centers has had a tremendous impact on the life of those living with HIV/AIDS. As with any nonprofit, the organization relies on community donations to fund programming. Most services are provided on a sliding scale basis. The vast amount of funding available to the agency goes directly towards individuals living with HIV/AIDS and prevention methods to end the HIV/AIDS crisis in Atlanta. Ending the crisis will not happen without community-wide support and bringing awareness to the cause.
In honor of their 25th year of service to the Atlanta community, Positive Impact Health Centers has made a call to action for $25 donations to support their work. Olivia Chelko-Long says that PHIC staff deliver impactful programming in order to change lives. “My job is to help people make that same level of impact supporting our work. I get to see the gift of a donation every day. It does matter. We need the community’s financial support and bringing attention to the cause to have a chance to shift the diagnoses rates.” A $25 donation will supply a HIV test to someone at risk who has a financial barrier. A $500 donation will supply medical personnel and lab tests to enroll an individual in the PrEP Program.
Medications and testing have made tremendous strides in HIV/AIDS diagnoses and treatment. As a result, it is easy for some to think there is no longer a problem which is why this nonprofit is striving to stay ahead of HIV/AIDS in Atlanta. Positive Impact Health Centers’ mission is client centered care for the HIV community in order to have a life worth living, but they can’t do it alone. It takes the whole community to bring about a positive impact in the life and well-being of those living with HIV/AIDS and stop transmission in Atlanta.