A new program at University Health aims to reduce the spread of HIV by encouraging those living with the disease to take their medications regularly to suppress the virus and prevent them for infecting others.
More than 6,000 people in Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties are diagnosed and living with HIV/AIDS. “Once people get into treatment, they can live normal lives,” said Dr. Roberto Villarreal, Senior Vice President and Chief Analytics Officer at University Health. “We have people in their 50s who are living with HIV, and their main health concern is hypertension.”
People who live with HIV/AIDS and who consistently take their antiretroviral medications are unlikely to transmit the virus. However, an estimated 800 to 1,300 people have HIV/AIDS and have not been diagnosed in the four-county area. “Currently HIV impacts a majority of young people, and it’s very difficult to connect and keep them to care,” said Dr. Villarreal.
To help mitigate this challenge, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funded a $200,000 grant to support University Health’s efforts through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Part A Program. The grant funds an innovative bilingual HIV awareness campaign, called “What’s Your Score?” with a campaign vision of “How Low Can You Go” and in Spanish “Que tan bajo puedes llegar” aimed at promoting HIV treatment as a powerful tool for HIV prevention using language that is easily understood by everyone.
University Health is one of only ten metropolitan areas across the nation to receive this funding to foster the expansion of HIV education efforts through culturally sensitive social media and virtual platforms. All efforts are designed to raise awareness of HIV, improve viral suppression rates, combat stigma, and improve access to HIV/AIDS services. The program also aims to connect people living with HIV/AIDS to health care, which helps them live longer, healthier lives.
“It’s not a cure for HIV, but it’s the next best thing,” said Greg Casillas, who has been living with HIV for 20 years and virally suppressed since 2018. “When I was diagnosed, taking meds felt like the beginning of the end of my life. It was very difficult for me to accept,” Greg said. “When I learned new HIV meds could help me live a long, normal life, I confronted the internal stigma I had created and started care.”
When the amount of HIV virus in a person’s body is so low that it’s difficult for lab tests measure, it’s referred to as being “undetectable.” It takes commitment for a person to reach this status. “You need to take your HIV meds every day as prescribed. It can take a few months to several months to get to undetectable status, as everyone is different,” said Dr. Villarreal. “Once your doctor confirms the amount of HIV in your body is undetectable, you still need to keep taking your meds and going to your medical appointments. The goal is to adhere to your HIV treatment and remain undetectable long-term.”