Find Out Why Almost Half of Atlanta’s Newly Diagnosed HIV Patients Have AIDS?
Public health officials in Atlanta are keeping a close eye on the growing rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and its associated disease, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). In 2012, Atlanta was ranked the number one American city in terms for new HIV diagnoses; these days it is ranked at number five, but that is hardly an improvement.
In 2013, the Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta began the administration of a comprehensive HIV testing program. Essentially, the program aims to test every single patient who arrives in the hospital, particularly through the emergency room. These days, the FOCUS HIV program at Grady Hospital yields between two and three infections per day, and half of the patients being screened are also being diagnosed with AIDS.
As the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States, and as the home of the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the current situation in Atlanta is not acceptable. A recent CDC HIV Surveillance Report indicated that 14 percent of patients do not know if they have either HIV or AIDS, which means that the 50 percent rate of AIDS among those being tested at Grady Hospital is certainly alarming, particularly since the CDC has been recommending routine, comprehensive testing since 2006.
An ongoing investigation by Georgia Public Radio has revealed that HIV testing in the Atlanta metropolitan area has always been less than adequate. It has been almost a decade since the CDC recommended comprehensive testing, and only the program at Grady Hospital can be described as heeding this recommendation. It so happens that it takes about 10 years for a clinical AIDS diagnosis to emerge from an untreated case of HIV infection.
There’s yet another troubling aspect of this situation, which has also been reported by Georgia Public Radio: The Fulton County Health Department has left almost $9 million of federal money, which should have been used for HIV prevention, on the table.
The Atlanta HIV Story
When the 2012 CDC HIV Surveillance Report put Atlanta as the American city with the highest number of HIV infections, the federal agency also set aside $28 million in aid for the purpose of lowering the HIV/AIDS risk in the city. Less than a year into this program, the CDC became concerned that the bureaucratic maze of Fulton County would make it difficult for funding to reach intended targets. An investigation by WABE, Atlanta’s National Public Radio affiliate, revealed that the Fulton County commissioners were not even aware of the availability of funds.
Over the last three years, nearly $9 million of HIV prevention funding was not used in Fulton County because the Director of the Health Department dragged her feet in this regard. According to the WABE investigation, not only Dr. Patrice Harris went as far as declining an intervention by the CDC to contact the Fulton County commissioners, who would have likely agreed to putting the money to work as quickly as possible. Dr. Harris took some of the blame on this issue, but she also lamented thew bureaucratic ways of moving money around in Atlanta.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Harris has announced that she will step down as Director of the Fulton County Health Department at the end of 2015, when she is scheduled to retire. In the meantime, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is helping with HIV testing at the street level, passing out candy and reminders about the importance of testing to revelers who enjoy the nightlife in the Fourth Ward. Also, Grady Hospital is now partnering with infectious disease researchers from Emory University.
The bottom line of HIV prevention in Atlanta begins with testing, which has clearly been neglected. AIDS can be treated symptomatically, but treatment success depends on early HIV detection, which is what Atlanta needs to do.