HIV task force asks more HIV testing in Fulton, needle exchange

Dealing with one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in the country, Fulton County leaders on Monday proposed a comprehensive program to address the spread of AIDS.

With more than 600 new cases diagnosed each year — more than San Francisco, long considered a hotbed for the disease — Fulton is an epicenter for new infections. Members of the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS said they planned to take several steps, from creating needle exchanges to requiring opt-out testing everywhere from hospitals to jails, to slow its spread.

“In Atlanta in 2016, we have the opportunity to lay the groundwork to end AIDS,” Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner said. “Within our lifetimes, we could see an end to AIDS.”

The county still needs to approve the ambitious plan, and needs the school system to be on board with plans to educate high school students about HIV prevention. But Commission Chairman John Eaves was confident that the political will exists.

“I’m absolutely confident,” he said. “It’s doable.”

The proposals include a slew of actions, some of which commissioners have control over and some of which they don’t. They are:

  • the creation of an anti-stigma campaign;
  • the creation of HIV prevention clinics at colleges and universities;
  • the creation of a syringe exchange;
  • HIV and sexuality education in Atlanta and Fulton County schools;
  • a new requirement for medical professionals to ask if people want to be tested for HIV, instead of putting the onus on patients to ask;
  • outreach to obstetricians and gynecologists so HIV-positive pregnant women will receive treatments that will prevent babies from being born with HIV; and
  • more national funding for the Ryan White program, which provides care for people who are HIV positive.

The goals include getting people from diagnosis to care within three days.

Eaves said he plans to bring items like opt-out testing and a syringe exchange to the board in August. The county may vote to support other items, like education, that it does not control.

“We have the tools to reduce our diagnoses,” said Wendy Armstrong, co-chair of the task force. “We are looking at the long view.”

In December, the task force will release another report, when it will estimate how much the actions will cost and when they should be completed.

Last year, Fulton County found itself in the embarrassing position of having to forfeit nearly $9 million in grant money because it failed to spend it by the deadline. The county was able to recoup about $3.4 million that it lost.

Since then, Fulton has revamped its grants program and hired a new health director.

Congressman John Lewis, who spoke in favor of the task force’s priorities, said it is time to “speak up and speak out and make a little noise” to prevent the spread of disease. Atlanta and Georgia have become focal points for the spread of AIDS, he said. It does not have to be the case.

“The fight is right here, is right here in the capital of the South,” he said. “If people can be mobilized to get out of their comfort zone, we can win this battle.”