New Jersey officials are seeking direct input from people affected by HIV/AIDS to help shape the plan the state is now developing to eradicate the most severe forms of the once deadly disease and significantly curtail its spread by 2025.
The effort is anchored by several key goals: ending AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, the end stage of the disease; reducing by 75 percent the spread of HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus; ensuring that all those infected with AIDS know their status; and helping to connect nine in 10 HIV patients with treatment that can prevent transmission.
Department of Health representatives joined members of the New Jersey Taskforce to End the HIV Epidemic for an interactive webinar Monday in which they discussed their work to address HIV/AIDS and their efforts to develop the blueprint for the next six years, which they hope to release at the end of June.
The task force is now looking to hear from citizens impacted by HIV/AIDS to build on these goals. It has scheduled three public listening sessions, starting Wednesday afternoon in Trenton. Evening forums will be held next Tuesday in Newark and Thursday in Camden; an event in Atlantic City is now being planned. (More information is on the DOH’s Facebook page.)
“We need to hear your voices,” said Gary Paul Wright, co-founder and executive director of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, in Newark and a task force member who joined the webinar. “If we don’t hear what we’re doing right and we don’t hear what we’re doing wrong, nothing is going to change.”
New Jersey has already made progress, with diagnoses down nearly 40 percent between 2006 and 2017, and new pediatric cases dropping by 88 percent, according to the DOH. But more than 37,000 Garden State residents are living with the infection — three-quarters are people of color, including half who are black — and 1,000 new cases were diagnosed last year.
The task force members said there is now a unique opportunity to further diminish the impact of the disease. Biomedical advances have improved the prognosis for those with full-blown AIDS and made it easier to contain HIV. Plus, advocates have made real progress to reduce the stigma of the disease and improve access to treatment.
“The foundation is there,” said assistant health commissioner Christopher Menschner, who oversees HIV/AIDS services for the health department. “It’s really within reach.”
The state’s campaign builds on the groundwork of advocates, he said, and seeks to bring everyone together to curb the spread of the virus and stop anyone from dying from AIDS. “I absolutely think we have the right people working at the right time in this field,” agreed Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, executive director of Hyacinth, which serves those impacted by the disease.
The task force grew out of Gov. Phil Murphy’s December pledge to add New Jersey to a list of eight states that signed on to the international Prevention Access Campaign. While the goal is to wipe out AIDS cases by 2025 and curb the impact of HIV — which is spread through blood and other bodily fluids — eradicating all HIV infections will take more time.
The stigma remains
Despite the biomedical advances and advocacy groundwork, the task is far from easy, webinar participants agreed. Stigma around the disease remains a problem and many of those infected are extremely vulnerable, shunned by family for being gay or transgender, and struggling with poverty, homelessness, racism, mental illness or addiction. “Those who are most at risk have a whole lot of things going on in their lives,” Menschner said.
The DOH invested nearly $46 million last year to support a network of HIV prevention and treatment services, including funding dozens of pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP programs, which provide daily medication that prevent HIV from spreading. The state also plans to add PrEP services at family planning clinics, officials said.
The department also supports screening services at 170 locations, which provided free, confidential testing to 79,000 residents last year, according to DOH. And thousands of patients receive subsidized treatment through a state program.
Connecting people with testing is a critical goal in the state’s plan, the webinar participants said, since the disease is now considered manageable with the right medications. The new campaign seeks to encourage individuals to get screened and will remind doctors and other healthcare providers of the importance of these tests. “Knowing your status is really the first step to us ending this epidemic,” Ahearn-O’Brien said.
The state funding also pays for trained nurses, testing materials and other needs at New Jersey’s seven syringe-access programs, initiatives that enable IV drug users to exchange dirty needles, access basic health services and connect to treatment, when ready. Sharing needles contributes significantly to the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases, like hepatitis. (Hyacinth runs three of the current programs.)
The DOH plans to expand these existing efforts and add others, something Menschner said is a critical part of its larger harm-reduction strategy. As it is, he said New Jersey is not keeping pace with other states, like Kentucky, which now has 47 syringe-access programs. “With all due respect to Kentucky,” he said, “we should have more (sites) to address the opioid epidemic.”
Wright, who has been doing this work for three decades, underscored the importance of these efforts. “We’ve come a long way with these syringe access programs — and we need more, because they work,” he said.