Health officials tackle AIDS with postings on Facebook; flyers at gay bars

News-DemocratSeptember 14, 2013 

An increase in the number of people diagnosed with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, has spurred new strategies to encourage testing.

The Madison County AIDS Program has free walk-in testing available from 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at its office at 2016 Madison Avenue in Granite City. It also has a variety of new methods to reach the most susceptible residents, according to the program's Prevention Coordinator Andrea Stafford.

"We're trying to promote healthy relationships, promote condom use and talking to partners about HIV testing," Stafford said. "We are also trying to do more through social media and posting our services on Craiglist because some people advertise for sex on there. Our outreach workers also post flyers at bars and clubs in the area, particularly gay bars."

Expanding testing hours and making an effort to reach out to residents has raised awareness, Stafford said.

"I think convenience has a lot to do with it," she said. "A lot of clients are scared to come in initially. When they work up the courage to come in and get tested, they are more likely to come right then versus setting an appointment for such and such a time."

The Madison County AIDS Program offers a variety of services in addition to testing, including outreach, surveillance, linkage to care, prevention education and partner services.

The St. Clair County Health Department administers the Ryan White HIV Care Services, a state-funded program providing medical care, risk-reduction education and other supportive services. Access to these services helps residents with HIV or AIDS manage the virus and prevent the spread of HIV, according to HIV Program Manager Tina Markovich.

"A great deal of effort is made to assure individuals living with HIV/AIDS are aware of the Ryan White HIV Care Program and those unaware of their status know where they can go for HIV testing," Markovich said. "Everyone should know their HIV status. The only way to know your HIV status is to get tested. It is most often those who don't know their status, or those who are aware of their status but not compliant with their medical care and medications, who spreading the virus."

Meanwhile, Illinois HIV Care Connect, a statewide program, is launching a social media campaign to reach younger residents and a Spanish-language website. Care Connect is a state program of the Illinois Department of Public Health and supported by the Illinois Public Health Association.

"This effort is all about extending HIV prevention and treatment across Illinois," said Tom Hughes, executive director of the Public Health Association. "By preventing HIV and helping those living with HIV find early and ongoing treatment, we can improve health outcomes and reduce medical costs." Statewide, 2,390 people were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in the past year.

Care Connect launched a website in English in 2009. More than 800 people visit the site per month, according to program coordinators. A Spanish version of the website was recently launched to help Illinois' Hispanic population. For more information, go to www.hivcareconnect.com.

A lack of health-care coverage also prevents from being tested for the disease, according to Jeffery Erdman with the Illinois Public Health Association.

"A lot of people may be HIV positive and don't know because they are not tested," Erdman said. "A quarter of the people with HIV don't even know they are HIV positive. What we also know is most of infections, 50 to 60 percent, occur among people who don't know they are positive."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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