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AIDS Still a Crisis In Sullivan County

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — November 30, 2007 — The numbers are still frightening, but there’s good news this year as the county celebrates World AIDS Day.
The United Nations’ estimate of 39 million AIDS cases was dropped to 33 million.
And in Sullivan County, the diagnoses have dipped – awareness and education are working.
Still, the county has a staggering AIDS rate.
In 2004, the New York State Department of Health put the number at 477 actual cases, not including residents of the prison system.
Today there are just over 200 patients who are tracked by the folks at Dr. Gary Good’s infectious disease office at Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris.
That’s not every infected person in Sullivan County, but it’s a large chunk.
According to Randall Harris, a psychotherapist who works with patients in Good’s office who have been diagnosed as HIV positive, there’s no way to pin a number on cases.
“There are probably as many positives in the county as there are awares,” he said, pointing to a vast sector of the community who are living lives with the infection but don’t know it.
In rural Sullivan, many people don’t reach out to a healthcare source for testing, Harris said.
They often don’t realize they can get the test for free or at a low cost.
Gone are the days of waiting weeks for results.
The test is now a 20-minute process called OraQuick which gives instant results.
People who do take the time for testing often don’t realize New York State uses Ryan White funding from the federal government to guarantee HIV/AIDS treatment to everyone, even those who don’t have private insurance or are not eligible for Medicaid.
Today’s diagnoses are split between drug users and folks – mostly female – who have unwittingly contracted HIV from an infected sexual partner.
The majority are in their 20s and 30s, Harris said, although there are still middle-aged residents testing positive.
What makes Sullivan County unique is its relationship with New York City, Harris said.
The county has long had the second highest per capita rate of HIV/AIDS outside the five boroughs.
“We’ve got weekender people, we’ve got people who move up here because of the cost of living in the city,” Harris explained. “Our HIV incidence is linked to New York City.”
Harris’ concern for HIV infected residents is complacency.
“It takes frequent medical care, testing to ensure treatments are working,” he said. “We don’t have a cure; and treatments are difficult.”
There’s also a need for mental health services for the infected, Harris said.
Access to a social worker and the possible use of psychotropic drugs are often necessary because of the affects a diagnosis has on a patient’s psyche.
Fewer patients focus today on the fear of death, Harris said. Treatment advances have allowed for people to live fruitful lives with an HIV diagnosis.
But the stigma of living with AIDS is still prominent.
Anonymous HIV tests are available at Sullivan County Public Health Services in Liberty, and the office at CRMC abides by all confidentiality rules of the federal HIPPA act to protect patients’ medical information.
That’s paramount in HIV/AIDS cases because so many people are afraid of their status leaking out to people they know.
“I think stigma is one of the biggest burdens of HIV,” Harris explained. “Keeping secrets from family, keeping secrets from neighbors, deciding how do they disclose, when do they disclose.
“It’s especially true for the younger people – when do they disclose to someone they’re dating?”
The stigma comes back to Harris’ complacency issues.
People are afraid of contracting the disease from someone who is infected.
But HIV/AIDS is highly preventable.
Although it’s a controversial topic, Harris said he stands behind advocates of safe sex.
There is still no cure for AIDS, he reiterated.
Fewer diagnoses does not mean the disease has been eradicated. In fact seven patients in Good’s office have died in the last year because of the disease.
People need to seek treatment, follow through and be careful, Harris said.
Today’s World AIDS Day celebration at noon at the Government Center in Monticello will focus on leadership – both in making people more aware and in providing necessary services for those already infected.
Testing is available at Good’s office at the hospital, at Hudson River Healthcare on Lakewood Ave. in Monticello, Planned Parenthood in Monticello and Sullivan County Public Health.
From there, people need to be advocates for themselves and take advantage of the services available.
That’s how good news can come out of the HIV/AIDS prognosis.

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