LARGO — The Prince George’s County Health Department announced on April 12 that the county has joined a national effort to end the HIV epidemic and reduce new infections by 90 percent in 10 years.
“The county has been committed this effort since the beginning of the epidemic,” said Dellia Hawthorne-Williams, public information officer with the county health department. “Now, we have an opportunity to build a program from the ground up to specifically support our county residents.”
The new initiative was initially announced at the State of the Union on February 5, 2019.
The fiscal year 2020 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) budget proposes $291 million to kick off the effort to end the HIV epidemic in America by 2030.
The initiative, entitled “Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America,” will reduce 90 percent of cases in 10 years, a total of 250,000 HIV infections within that time frame.
“The time to act is now. We have the right data, the right tools and the right leadership to end the HIV epidemic in America—a goal once thought impossible but now within our reach,” HHS said in a statement. “The initial investment announced today will undoubtedly help to reverse current, troubling trends and put us on a committed pathway to ending the HIV epidemic for our next generation.”
According to HHS, the nation’s progress in ending the HIV epidemic has plateaued in recent years as new threats emerge, such as the opioid crisis where 1-in-10 new HIV infections occur within those who inject drugs.
Maryland was ranked No. 5 in the U.S. among states and territories with HIV diagnosis rates in 2017, says the latest data from the Maryland Department of Health.
Throughout the state, the majority of the people diagnosed that year, 35 percent, were between the ages of 20 and 29. An estimated 11.6 percent of people were undiagnosed.
HIV has significantly impacted Prince George’s County. The Maryland Department of Health says that in 2017, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City had the highest rates of new HIV diagnosis. Twice as many men than women were infected at 67 percent.
According to the county health department, one in 32 men from ages 30 to 39 are infected with HIV in Prince George’s County. The county had the highest number of new HIV infections in 2017 with 320 cases, and African Americans are disproportionately affected as they make up 62 percent of the population but comprise 83 percent of HIV cases.
“This is an important moment – not just for Prince George’s County – but for everyone,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in a statement. “We must harness this opportunity and take control of a disease that has profoundly impacted too many of our communities and taken the lives of too many of our loved ones for decades. I am proud that Prince George’s County will be a part of global history by playing a leading role in eliminating the HIV epidemic.”
Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City are the only jurisdictions in Maryland to have joined in the effort so far.
“The hardest thing with anyone who is HIV positive, or one of the hardest things, is the stigma,” said Anne Wiseman, deputy director of Heart to Hand Inc., a nonprofit based in Largo that supports those infected with HIV. They offer services to those living with HIV such as medical care, on-site pharmacy, medical case management, transport and financial assistance.
“That is the biggest thing I see our clients grappling with is tearing through the myths that are out there around HIV, whether or not you’re going to die tomorrow, and you’re not because it’s totally manageable now with medication,” Wiseman said. “But also what are friends and family going to think and what do I think about myself because there is such a stigma out there around HIV in 2019.”
The Prince George’s County Health Department also has its own HIV/AIDS Program (HAP) where they provide comprehensive medical care of HIV patients who are uninsured or underinsured. These services include health assessments, personalized treatment plans, anonymous counseling, testing and referrals.
The national plan to end HIV focuses on four areas; diagnosing all people with HIV as early as possible; treating all of those affected as quickly and effectively as possible; protecting all people who are at risk for HIV using prevention interventions; and responding rapidly to to detect and respond to growing HIV clusters and prevent new ones.
It will be carried out in three phases. The first phase involves targeting geographic areas where HIV is most concentrated. The first five years will focus on this phase as new resources, expertise and technology are implemented in these areas.
In phase two, these resources will be more widely distributed to meet the goal by 2030. Finally, intensive case management will be implemented to maintain the progress and keep the number of cases at fewer than 3,000 per year nationally.
At the county level, the program the health department is currently building starts with community engagement to understand what residents need and want. They will be implementing broader social and clinical services, and advocacy organizations will receive training to intentionally develop and hire a workforce that is welcoming to a broad spectrum of people with services for HIV in clinics, hospitals and communities throughout Prince George’s.
“Our plan will build on our current strategy that was put together with input from the community,” Hawthorne-Williams said. “This plan will include a broader participation form members of Prince George’s residents including men, women, gay, bisexual and transgender people, providers, other social services and co-morbidities. In the plan, we will address having services for anyone that need them regardless of their ability to pay.”
With Prince George’s County being one of the first in the state to become a part of this national initiative, Wiseman said she hopes it can help continue building collaborative approaches between the county health department and community-based organizations around ending HIV and that the messages sent are all the same.
“That message is that you matter and that HIV is manageable,” said Wiseman. “And so it’s really about kind of normalizing the conversation.”