Dozens of people gathered Friday night in Galveston to remember loved ones who have died from AIDS or are living with HIV — and mark medical advances that have made life with the disease more manageable.
Access Care of Coastal Texas, a Galveston nonprofit, organized a World AIDS Day memorial service Friday, an annual event celebrated since 1988 around the world on Dec. 1.
There’s not yet a cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS, but advances in treatment and care for the disease have made it a remarkable example of success in public health, said Dr. Janak Patel, head of the Division of Infectious Disease-Pediatric at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
More drugs are available today than ever and have fewer side effects, compared to the early years of the disease, Patel said. A daily drug is available now for people who have a high-risk of acquiring the virus that acts as a preventive for contracting it.
“It’s a very manageable disease now as long as our patients want that,” Patel said.
In Galveston County, the rate of new cases has remained fairly consistent over the past decade, with some spikes and declines, according to state data. Although across the state, new diagnoses among the most affected population by race — African-Americans — is declining, according to the data.
The county ranked 12th in the state for highest rates of new HIV diagnoses, according to the state.
One of the biggest challenges for health providers and patients is making sure there’s continuity in care, stable access to drugs and continuity in taking them, Patel said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in October that people who have undetectable levels of the virus cannot transmit it to others, Patel said. Medical and public health professionals who treat patients with HIV have known this for years, but the CDC had not yet recognized it, he said.
The recognition, in part, could help with stigma against people who are infected with HIV, Patel said. People can be infected with HIV, but treatment can reduce the viral load in their bodies to undetectable levels.
Stigma is one of the biggest challenges for care providers, said Mark White, executive director of Access Care of Coastal Texas. The organization provides access to care for people with HIV, including testing, case management, pharmaceuticals, health insurance assistance and other services.
Things have improved since the 1980s, but many people are still uneducated about the disease and form stereotypes or prejudices against people who have it, White said. That can create a roadblock for people to get tested or continuing with treatment, he said.
“There’s still stigma against people with HIV,” White said. “Through prevention, treatment, care and education, we strive to achieve the goal of zero new infections, zero deaths and zero discrimination.”
Bryce Aaron, a client services specialist at the organization, has worked with HIV-related medical services providers since 2006. He’s seen many changes in that time, but diagnosing and telling people they have the disease doesn’t get easier, he said.
“It’s hard to hold that space when someone finds out they’re positive,” Aaron said. “You have to tell them, ‘This is the new normal. It’s a life-changing diagnosis.’”
HIV infection complicates relationships with romantic partners, family and friends, Aaron said. The organization offers support groups and other emotional support for people confronting life with the infection, Aaron said.
“Some people may drift away from your life, but others will come in,” Aaron said. “We want to give lots of reassurances.”
Aaron sees many people who have lived with the disease for decades and become models of hope for those newly diagnosed, he said.