Uniting to fight the second opioid crisis – a rise in HIV infections

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV infection, and one in eight doesn't know they have it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV infection, and one in eight doesn't know they have it. TNS

The South accounts for half of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States.

That startling fact comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its most recent geographic breakdown of HIV cases. There is no denying it: HIV and the potentially deadly immune disease it causes – AIDS – have a disproportionate impact in our region. Although the South and the country as a whole have made tremendous progress in combating AIDS since the 1980s, we still have much work to do.

Today, it is especially important that we approach this work with urgency because of a new epidemic in our country: opioids. What started with addiction to prescription painkillers has morphed into the increasing use of heroin – and the spread of infectious diseases through needle use. The director of the federal Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy recently warned about that, highlighting an outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C in an Indiana county where people were injecting opioids.

The Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina is among the organizations working to address these public health challenges in the Triangle, focusing on prevention, education and treatment. I chair its board of directors, and we work extensively with young people. According to the CDC, 13- to 24-year-olds account for 22 percent of new HIV diagnoses. African-American and Hispanic young men are affected in particular. The Alliance provides more than 2,000 free and confidential HIV tests annually. Many of those tests are in community settings – sometimes even at bars – so that access is less of a barrier to treatment.

In addition, the Alliance of AIDS Services works with community partners on fundraisers, including the AIDS Walk and 5K Run at Dorothea Dix Park on Oct. 21. The event will be a chance for people in our community to help raise awareness and money for the ongoing challenges of HIV and AIDS. The funds we raise will help us continue to provide critical services in our area, including individual and group counseling.

Now more than ever, counseling is an essential element of AIDS treatment. It has always been an isolating disease, and the stigma associated with it can still be intense, even preventing some people from getting tested in the first place. That helps explain why HIV and AIDS have been so difficult to defeat despite great advancements in treatment. It is also why a key part of the alliance’s mission is to provide compassionate, non-judgmental support.

My family knows firsthand how important that is. My brother died of an AIDS in 1992. He was fortunate in that he had many of the things the alliance’s clients today do not have: a good education, a solid job, a supportive family and a strong faith community. But what he did not have back then was compassion and judgment-free support among many of the people he knew. “Dirty” was – and still is – the word too many people associate with those who are HIV positive.

With a new risk of infection tied to the opioid epidemic, we must do more to help people in our communities learn about prevention, overcome stigma and seek treatment. Fortunately, the alliance and many other community organizations are committed to doing just that – until the cure.

Melanie B. Dubis is a partner at Parker Poe (Raleigh) and leads the firm’s business litigation practice.