By Evelyn Foust and John Paul Womble
North Carolina leads the way in holding the state HIV/AIDS program, elected officials, public and private medical providers, and community-based partners accountable to three primary goals.
First, testing must be increased to identify persons who are unaware of their HIV status.
Across the state, we have launched a series of initiatives and advocated for policy changes designed to increase the number of people being tested for HIV.
The state Division of Public Health, FOX 50, Duke and UNC, for example, created and launched the Get Real-Get Tested campaign to raise awareness and increase HIV testing.
The campaign has aired more than 1,000 public-service announcements, had nearly 5,000 hits on its website, hosted more than 10 community testing events, and tested 1,855 individuals for HIV.
New communicable disease rules were passed by the North Carolina Public Health Commission and North Carolina Rules Review Commission to increase HIV testing of pregnant women and newborns.
And thanks to new state and federal HIV-prevention funds, and a new partnership with the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we are implementing new initiatives geared towards routinizing HIV testing in jails, hospitals, substance programs and in community venues.
We also need to increase access to care and treatment.
In years past, North Carolina led the U.S. by having the lowest financial eligibility and the longest waiting list of folks in need of life-saving medications available from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program jointly funded with state and federal dollars.
North Carolina also led in lack of federal funding from the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides funding for HIV/AIDS care and treatment.
Thanks to collaboration among government, advocates, the private sector and the news media, North Carolina now leads in a new direction.
The state increased the eligibility for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program from 125 percent of the federal poverty level to 250 percent – meaning an individual can earn up to$ 25,525 a year and still qualify for assistance with medication.
And because citizens across the state made the Ryan White CARE Act a priority, more than 9 million new dollars will come to North Carolina.
Finally, we need to increase the number of persons who stay in care – maintaining good health, increasing self esteem, extending life, and preventing new infections.
New funds have also enabled us to establish new HIV/AIDS prevention for positives programs.
Research shows that if we are able to identify and link HIV-positive individuals to medical care in an early stage of their disease, keep them in care, and provide them with effective support services, we can significantly reduce their viral load, increase their immune response, and minimize their ability to transmit the HIV virus onto others.
Our work is not done. In the coming years, we will continue to build a stronger patient management system, directly linking people to HIV prevention, counseling, testing and care programs – a seamless system.
Individual and community health outcomes and disease trends will clearly show we are being effective.
Our HIV/AIDS prevention and care network in North Carolina will continue to lead in holding us all accountable to one another.
Evelyn Foust is branch head for HIV/STD Prevention and Care in the N.C. Division of Public Health, and John Paul Womble is director of development and public affairs for the Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina, based in Raleigh, N.C.