Overall, new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) diagnoses in Memphis are trending down, except in teens and young adults.
Shelby County Health Department’s 2016 data shows that 63% of new HIV diagnoses saturate the 15 to 34-year-old age group, up from 57% in 2012. Nationally, the Memphis area ranks 8th for new HIV cases and 12th for new AIDS cases. This is startling, to say the least.
Although today more focus and attention is given to HIV disease than just 10 years ago, there is still a need to better coordinate effective evidence-based prevention methods and lifesaving treatment options for those most at risk. One way is overall community outreach and awareness, which helps us to increase an individual’s knowledge about the importance of knowing their HIV status and to offer free HIV testing. This method helps us to identify infected people earlier and get them into treatment sooner.
In 2010, Alan* found out he was HIV positive, and thought the worst. Nearing his 21st birthday, he went to the Shelby County Health Department. They told him to get to St. Jude.
In fact, St. Jude is a coordinating center for HIV treatment — a “one-stop shop” for comprehensive care with a strong community outreach component. Reaching infected individuals sooner is a priority, in addition to working with community partners to coordinate prevention measures. Education and awareness may not be reaching teens and young adults in places they normally populate and most may not understand their risk for contracting the virus. As youth experts, we have learned to use creative modalities to reach them by taking education and testing into nontraditional settings like athletic competitions, school dances or art and talent showcases. This normalizes the discussions, reduces the impact of the stigma of the disease and makes the messages more palatable.
Alan was placed on medication and serves as support for newly diagnosed individuals.
“It could happen to anybody,” he said. “But you can live beyond your situation — you can still do all these things and be HIV positive.”
Each year, for the last 30 years, World AIDS Day is observed on Dec. 1, and is an opportunity to highlight and show support for people living with HIV and remember those who’ve died. For more than a decade now, we have supported World AIDS Day here in Memphis. It serves as a launching pad for awareness and creates an opportunity to help identify newly diagnosed youth and get them started on treatment at St. Jude. We can’t impact the community alone. I, along with my team and community allies, have worked together to develop a solid, youth-focused HIV prevention plan. These allies, representing schools, city and county government offices, universities and community based organizations; have not only collaborated to create this plan, but have also offered HIV testing in the aforementioned nontraditional settings during World AIDS Day.
There are many clinics in the Memphis area where you can receive an HIV/AIDS test at no cost. If you’re diagnosed with HIV, we can begin a virus suppression treatment that will help you remain symptom free and progress toward quality years of living. At St. Jude, we’re also one of 4 pediatric institutions nationally participating in a clinical trial (HPTN-083), that enrolls HIV-negative individuals in order to test the effectiveness of a long-acting injectable HIV prevention and treatment drug and its impact of reducing HIV exposure in high risk communities. This is the largest study to date to confirm this and our staff’s experience with working with youth, our success and reputation as a high-performing HIV prevention and treatment center, and established rapport with Memphis residents offers us a unique opportunity to take revolutionary HIV prevention research to our community.
Alan was on the verge of AIDS, and is now undetectable, thanks to regular antiretroviral treatment. He said coming to St. Jude was the best decision he’s ever made.
“My health is my life,” he said. “This disease could kill me, but I had those words ringing in my head. St. Jude literally gave me my life back.”
We have the means now to provide infected individuals a great, symptom-free life. We’re testing a medication that can prevent infection. We have resources for everyone involved – it’s a matter of getting the word out and encouraging youth and young adults to test and if found to be infected with HIV, to let us know so that we can offer our best care and support.
*name was changed to protect identity.