Published on Thursday, January 25, 2018
Media Contact: Ruth Cummins
If you don’t know you have the sexually transmitted disease HIV, then you don’t know you need life-saving treatment, and you don’t know that you should take precautions not to spread the virus.
Express Personal Health, a new clinic operated by the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is filling a gap by providing free HIV testing for those whose sexual health puts them in danger of infection. The clinic at the Jackson Medical Mall is discreetly located on the third floor, which formerly housed the Mississippi Department of Health-funded Crossroads Clinic.
“We’re trying to address access,” said Dr. Leandro Mena, professor of infectious diseases and director of UMMC’s Center for HIV/AIDS Research, Education and Policy.
“The CDC says that everyone should be tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime,” said Mena, chair of the Department of Population Health. “If you have any risk, you should be tested more frequently, and if you have an ongoing risk, you should be tested at least once a year.”
Express Personal Health is inviting to patients because of its third-floor location and pains taken to create a comfortable atmosphere, Mena said. The clinic is funded for two registered nurse educators and a receptionist.
The need for HIV screening, the first line of defense for prevention, is critical. One in seven Mississippians who have the HIV infection, or about 15 percent, don’t know it, the CDC says. Of those aged 15-24 who have HIV, more than half don’t know it.
The continuing bad news is that Jackson has the fourth-highest rate of HIV diagnosis per 100,000 population among the nation's metro areas. Overall, an estimated 10,300 Mississippians are living with HIV – but that’s only the diagnosed cases.
Those at high risk for HIV infection include men who have sex with men; people with multiple sex partners, especially partners who inject drugs; people who have sex with high-risk partners; and those who have or have recently had a STD such as syphilis or genital herpes.
The Mississippi Department of Health is providing funding for UMMC to operate Express Personal Health and provide HIV screening – but not on-site treatment -- to individuals who are at high risk, Mena said. Supplementing that is a grant from Gilead Sciences, a research-based pharmaceutical company, which will fund free testing for hepatitis B and C and for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
The Department of Health “has provided funds for free testing to a number of community based organizations, resulting in more than 5,000 screenings that detected about 20 positive readings,” said Dr. James Stewart, the Health Department’s director of the Office of Communicable Diseases, which oversees the Office of STD/HIV.
In 2017, individuals ages 15-34 comprised 62 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the state.
In the Jackson metro area, Stewart said, 60 percent of those newly diagnosed were under 35.
“Because of this, it makes the most sense to target testing to these groups,” Stewart said. “We are providing funds to the new clinic to focus on reaching these individuals, especially those who are not comfortable getting tested in a traditional clinic setting.”
Open Arms Healthcare Center in Jackson is a provider of primary and mental health services, with an emphasis on the health care needs of the LGBT population. Open Arms is a service of the nonprofit organization My Brother’s Keeper.
Partnerships between entities such as UMMC, the Department of Health and My Brother’s Keeper can help lower the state’s HIV rates and increase access to care and testing, said Deja Abdul-Haqq, director of the Office of Organizational Development at My Brother’s Keeper. “Under the weight of Mississippi’s current disparity situation, especially in Jackson, it will take all us to change the tide of the HIV epidemic,” she said.
Pearl resident Regi Stevenson is glad that Express Personal Health is a resource should he need it. “For one thing, it’s free,” Stevenson said. “The way the economy is now, it sets you up for failure. With this being free, you won’t lose people because they don’t have the funds.
“It’s a really good thing, and the name is catchy, too,” he said. “I hope that it’s actually express so that you get fast, quality care.”
The Crossroads Clinic in June 2017 relocated to the Health Department’s Five Points clinic on the Medical Mall’s first floor. It offers STD screening and treatment, but only screening for HIV. For those who test positive, both Five Points and Express Personal Health will provide immediate referrals to community based clinics and organizations for treatment.
Testing is as simple as collection of a blood sample from a finger stick or mouth swab to be analyzed at a laboratory for detection of antibodies your body makes against HIV. “You will get results within 20 minutes,” Mena said of Express Personal Health. “If you test positive, you will be linked with a HIV primary care provider that same day.”
If someone tests negative at Express Personal Health, Mena said, they’ll also be linked to comprehensive HIV services, including those that prescribe or provide the drug PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. It's a pill that people who don't have HIV take daily to reduce their risk of infection from sex. Clinic staff will provide counseling and other early interventions that aim to promote sexual health and reduce risk of sexually transmitted infections.
“We want people to feel safe,” Mena said. “We recognize that while there’s been progress, the stigma of HIV and testing continues to be high. Many people have concerns with confidentiality. Some of them don’t want to ask their primary care provider for an HIV test.
“There is no judgment. We are inclusive of everyone.”
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