By Coshandra Dillard
World AIDS Day is observed each year on Dec. 1 and is an opportunity to increase awareness about the fight against HIV, show support for people living with the disease, and remember those who have died. The observance began in 1988 and was the first ever global health day.
East Texas Cares Resource Center will host its annual red balloon release ceremony 11:15 a.m. Thursday at St. James CME Church, 408 N. Border Ave., to commemorate World AIDS Day. There will also be an event at 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 2500 McCann Road, in Longview.
An estimated 36.7 million people are living with HIV/AIDS around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Each year, more than 1 million people die from AIDS-related causes and 2.1 million people become newly infected by HIV, reports state.
Here in East Texas—a 38-county area—there are more than 2,500 people living with HIV as of December 2015, according to the most recent Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) statistics.
Reports show that some East Texas counties are among the top 25 counties with the highest number of HIV cases, highest HIV case rates, and highest AIDS case numbers and rates.
Gregg County ranks 17th in the state on the list of HIV diagnoses; 18th for AIDS cases; and 19th for the number of people living with HIV. Smith County ranks 25th for HIV diagnoses; 21st for AIDS cases; and 23rd for number of people living with HIV.
Gregg County is ranked fourth for its case rates; Anderson County ranks 12th and Cherokee ranks 14th. The three counties are also on the highest rates of AIDS cases list, with Anderson ranked second, Cherokee ranked fourth and Gregg ranked sixth. Gregg County is ranked fifth on the highest HIV case rates list.
Getting tested is one thing, but following up on treatment is another focus to stop the spread of HIV, health officials and HIV/AIDS awareness advocates say.
“Less than 46 percent of persons living with HIV in East Texas continue to remain in treatment and reach a point of viral suppression,” said Jeanette Calhoun, PhD, executive director at East Texas Cares. “Why does East Texas rank so low? Because we are failing at keeping persons linked to care once they are diagnosed.”
Calhoun said when infected persons reach viral suppression the whole community is safer because it becomes more difficult to transmit.
“AIDS is not over but if diagnosed individuals stay on their HIV anti-retroviral medicines then the community benefits,” she said. “The success we have attained in the past 30 years gives us hope for the future. We must remain driven and determined to distribute prevention information about HIV/AIDS. We must ensure that our children are born free of this horrific disease. We must be factual when we speak to our children about how this virus is passed along.”
LOOKING BACK, THEN FORWARD
In 1981 five young, otherwise healthy men, presented with unusual lung and other infections. Their immune systems had shut down and each would later succumb to this opportunistic infection. The first reports appeared in a June 1981 Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report published by the CDC.
“We stand along with 78 million people who have become infected with HIV and remember 35 million who have died from AIDS related disease since 1981,” Calhoun said. “The world has come together and pledges to end this disease by 2030. While many are excited about this ending date others are up in arms that still there is no cure.”
Calhoun noted that within the last week, a new vaccine test began in South Africa. Health officials hope the vaccine will block the HIV virus from attaching to healthy human cells.
“This study could be the final nail in the coffin to end HIV if it is effective,” Calhoun said. “Earliest results from the study are expected in 2020. This is the most promising attack of the HIV virus to date.”
LOCAL HIV/AIDS AWARENESS
The Tyler chapter of Black Nurses Rock will host an HIV/AIDS awareness event from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at East Texas Cornerstone, 200 N. Beckham. The focus is on educating the community about risks and ensuring people know their status.
“Practicing safe sex save lives and educating the community save lives as well,” said Lisa Williams, president/chief executive officer of Black Nurses Rock-Tyler.
Tickets cost $10. The guest speaker is Keisha Harris, a licensed master social worker with Special Health Resources for Texas. A mobile unit will be on site for free, confidential testing.