In an effort to better serve people living with and at high-risk of HIV in Missouri, the Saint Louis Effort for AIDS (STLEFA) and the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) announced in late September a merger that has the potential to change the face of HIV and AIDS in our city forever.
“Because treatment for those with HIV and AIDS has improved over time, many believe there aren’t still people dying due to this infection,” says local community activist Sarah Garber. “The reality is that HIV and AIDS are still taking lives, whether it’s because of a late diagnosis, lack of access to treatment or increased risk for other ailments. Especially during an administration that does not make HIV/AIDS and other STI/STD educational outreach a priority, we need organizations like STLEFA and ARCW to stand together to fight to improve access to testing and treatment and to elevate and amplify the voices of those in our community affected by HIV and AIDS.”
As numbers of people affected by HIV and AIDS continues to increase, the merger offers a beacon of hope.
“We have all seen how this disease can take away from a friend’s or family member’s quality of life,” says Michael Dunning, president of Show Me Bears, a local social group that coordinates philanthropic activities to contribute proceeds to organizations working directly with HIV and AIDS issues in the greater St. Louis area. “The education and clinical services that the new organization can bring to the community can hopefully educate those who did not live through the height of the epidemic, when we saw friends and family dying from this terrible disease.”
Leon Braxton, director of diversity and inclusion for Pride St. Louis, says the merger will give STLEFA a broader reach.
“There’ll be more case workers, more programs and we’ll be able to reach some of the more marginalized community members,” Braxton says. “[Pride St. Louis] will get more of a chance to collaborate with EFA on events like an AIDS walk, or other stuff like trivia nights and HIV prevention workshops. There are a plethora of seminars and other education we could use to engage with the community.”
Basic education and awareness are some of the best ways to combat increasing infection numbers.
“We need to get back in the streets and take the message to the people,” Braxton says. “There’s also people in rural areas that need help — people outside the St. Louis boundaries — so we can channel some energy into those areas.”
The merger will bring the first HIV Medical Home to the area in January 2019. Created by the ARCW in 2011, the Medical Home offers integrated health and social services, including medical, dental, mental health and pharmacy services, along with case management and support services.
“Our HIV Medical Home positions us to offer the best outcomes for HIV patients,” says Michael Gifford, president and CEO of ARCW. “The gold standard for good health for people living with HIV is achieving an undetectable viral load. Currently, 94 percent of our patients have an undetectable viral load. The national average for HIV patients in HIV specialty clinics is 72 percent.”
The Medical Home includes a clinic providing primary care and specialty treatment for people with HIV, a behavioral health program that supports people with HIV in overcoming mental health challenges, and a pharmacy specializing in HIV care with access to the most advanced medications.
“On the prevention side, we will have a program that targets individuals at high-risk for HIV and offer them free HIV testing, STI testing and treatment, and other preventive options such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which is a pill someone HIV-negative can take every day to prevent them from getting HIV,” Gifford says. “According to the [Centers for Disease Control], when taken as intended, PrEP is up to 99 percent effective in preventing new HIV infections.”
Despite ongoing efforts from a multitude of organizations throughout the country, a record number of people are currently living with HIV.
“The good news is that through powerful medications and great care like the integrated model of care we will provide in St. Louis through the HIV Medical Home, people with HIV can live a long and healthy life as long as they continue to have access to that great care for the rest of their lives,” Gifford says. “Sadly, though, new HIV infections continue to occur at unacceptably high rates and are especially high among the gay community, where one in six gay men are projected to contract HIV in their lifetime, and it’s even worse for gay men of color.”
Lack of access to health care, education and prevention materials, as well as relentless stigma and social detriments of health such as homelessness, mental illness, addiction, discrimination and poverty, continue to fuel new HIV infections, Gifford explains. Over the first few years, he expects the merger will allow the organizations to provide care to at least 1,000 at-risk St. Louisans, with many of them accessing HIV care or PrEP for the first time in years or possibly ever.
“We will provide care to everyone regardless of ability to pay, whether they have insurance or not,” he says. “We believe you should get great health care regardless of the color of your skin, who you love, where you live or how much, or how little, money you have. …
“The reality is that if someone with HIV is not getting the proper treatment and care they need, they can succumb to the illness and die prematurely. … It is literally a life-or-death situation. We are providing all the resources anyone living with HIV will need to not only survive, but to thrive.”
The merger has already seen immense support from the community, including a $1.7 million grant from the Missouri Foundation of Health. To get involved in the fight against this epidemic, visit stlefa.org or call 314-645-6451.