Rural Health receives funds for HIV/Aids projects

AIKEN, S.C. (WJBF) — It’s an epidemic overshadowed by a pandemic, and now Rural Health is getting $347,000 to help with HIV/AIDS prevention and care for people in Aiken County.

It’s a push for more testing in South Carolina to identify those who need to know their HIV status. “We’re really excited about the idea.” Physician Assistant Ebony Kerlin told NewsChannel 6’s Aiken Bureau Chief Shawn Cabbagestalk about the grant. She and her team work together to help patients who have been diagnosed HIV-positive. Health leaders say in 2019, there were about 20,000 South Carolina residents diagnosed with HIV. Nearly 400 of those people lived in Aiken. “The majority of persons living with HIV in South Carolina are men, and they’re usually men who have sex with men and also, they’re African Americans as well. We are definitely disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS virus,” Kerlin shared.

She said that there are a lot of factors that go into why certain groups are disproportionate. “One being socioeconomic factors, the resources, lack of access to care, transportation education. so a lot of people aren’t getting tested,” she said. “A lot of people often have times to have risk behaviors such as exchanging sex for money, shelter safety so they pose a risk of contracting HIV by doing those behaviors,” she added.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) awarded more than $48 million to health centers across the states to expand HIV prevention and treatment. Rural Health Services, Inc. (RHS) was the only health center in South Carolina to be awarded more than $347,000 of funding from the grant. The agency received the grant in September, and the money is now in their hands. “We just recently hired like some case managers, navigators, and HIV educators, as well as a part of that initiative,” she said.

Previously people living with the virus who needed additional services would be referred to an outside agency. Now, testing and treatment can be done all in one place. “We’re able to offer more screenings, and we’re able to offer medication assistance and care while also managing their primary care needs. So we can do everything here now without having that need to be referred,” she said. A pharmacist who specializes in HIV medications will also be on hand.

“I think it’s an awesome opportunity for not only the clinic but also the community as a whole,” registered nurse and patient care coordinator Kimya Justice said. “Hopefully, people will take this as an opportunity to come out and get tested, and receive the treatment that they may need,” Justice added.

The testing method will be a finger stick or mouth swab. The results from the mouth swab usually take about 20 minutes.

If someone is determined to be positive; they will be brought in for additional labs to make that confirmatory test. If the person still tests positive, they will be treated at Rural Health. “There have been tons of advances in HIV care,” Kerlin shared. “People are living longer, healthier lives, and they are no longer having to do multiple pill burden regimens taking multiple tablets a day,” she added.

Meanwhile, the FDA recently approved a once-a-month injectable treatment. “If people take their medication daily as prescribed. They lower the risk of HIV transmission to their HIV-negative sex partners, also called U=U. So the virus is virtually undetectable in their system,” Kerlin said.

Currently, the new health care workers are in training to provide the best options for their clients. “We partnered with the Southeast AIDS and Training Center. They’re a collective initiative that is through the Southeast including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina. They host training about cultural humility, stigma, motivational interviewing for patients, HIV 101, PrEP 101, gender inclusivity, as well as doing simulated patient visits and encounters,” she shared.

Rural Health will host HIV testing every first and third Saturday, as well as community events. “The CDC recommends that all people ages 13 through 64 be tested at least once in their lifetime and more if they have a higher risk. So with that age group, that leaves about 70,000 people in Aiken alone who need to be tested,” Kerlin said.

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