Let’s Make Atlanta Greater Than AIDS

Patrice Harris smiling

First appeared in The Atlantic Journal-Constitution on February 12, 2015. Written by Dr. Patrice Harris. 

Metropolitan Atlanta has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in America. That is unacceptable. We can do better. We must do better.

Advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV have reinvigorated hope that the end of AIDS is in sight. We now know that people with HIV, who are on ongoing antiretroviral treatment, not only can improve their own health, but can reduce the risk of spreading the disease to others by as much as 96 percent. That is a huge development.

Additionally, pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP – a once-daily pill available by prescription – is a highly effective, added option we now have to reduce the risk for those who are negative. When used correctly, PrEP is more than 90 percent effective protecting against HIV. Coupled with the use of condoms, which protect against HIV and many other sexually transmitted diseases, these are powerful tools at our disposal.

So what’s holding us back?

For one, many people in Atlanta and across the country are unaware of these game-changing developments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 3 in 10 people with HIV in the U.S. have the virus “under control” through treatment. Fulton County fares better, with 4 of 10 having the virus under control.

And though HIV has touched many lives, we are not talking about it – not with our families, friends, partners or even health care providers. A recent survey from the Kasier Family Foundation finds more than 3 in 4 Americans say HIV rarely, if ever, comes up in conversation. As a result, misperceptions persist. When it comes to HIV, too many people are still acting on fear, not knowledge.

To close the information gap and reduce stigma, Fulton and DeKalb counties joined with the organization Greater Than AIDS to make Atlanta just that “greater than AIDS.” Media and community messages featuring local health care providers at the forefront of the HIV response will begin appearing this month to educate about prevention and treatment options available today. Future phases of the campaign will highlight the important role played by loved ones in the health and well-being of people with HIV.

A critical first step is that all Atlantans know their HIV status. So we will also expand testing to get more people diagnosed and into care as quickly as possible. If you are HIV-positive, we can get you on treatments to keep you healthy and help prevent further transmission. And if you are HIV-negative, we can help you stay negative.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners in December approved a resolution creating a task force on HIV/AIDS, reinforcing its long-standing policies to stem the transmission of the disease. Recommendations of these stakeholders and interested parties in the areas of prevention and treatment, public education, advocacy, housing and related issues are vital to all efforts to eradicate HIV/AIDS.

At the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, we are dedicated to providing information and services to the people of metro Atlanta. But we can’t do it alone. We need everyone involved. We need the faith community, businesses, community organizations – and you.

Whether you are HIV-positive or -negative, everyone has a role to play. Be informed. Talk with your loved ones. Know your status. And if you or someone you know is HIV-positive, support them in getting treatment and care. Together, we are “greater than AIDS.”