Notes from the TN Dept of Health: June and the history of the fight against HIV

This information in this post was written by and is provided through a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health:

For people living with, affected by, or working to fight HIV, June is a month of historical and personal significance. June 5, 1981 was the day when the first five cases of what would later be known as AIDS were reported in the United States. Every year on June 5th, people around the world celebrate HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day. On June 27, 1982 the first “safer sex” pamphlet in response to the AIDS epidemic was created by a gay activist group in San Francisco and distributed at the International Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade. June 27th is now recognized as National HIV Testing Day, which is both a day when many people get their annual HIV test and when staff and volunteers gear up to run large outreach and testing events. 

June is a month when our HIV history and present collide, making it an ideal time to reflect on how far we’ve come and where we are going. This year, the theme for HIV Long Term Survivors’ Day was “What Now?” In four decades, a lot has changed. 

Treatment for HIV has certainly come a long way. What started as palliative care to make people comfortable with a disease without a name is now treatment that is so effective, people can live with HIV without symptoms and without fear of passing it to another person during sex. 

“The science is clear. Numerous studies have shown that people living with HIV who take their medications as prescribed and get and keep and undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV.” - Pamela Talley, MD, MPH, Medical Director of the HIV/STD/Viral Hepatitis section at Tennessee Department of Health, World AIDS Day 2019 Press Release

Treatment has evolved significantly, becoming easier to take over time. What was many pills a day in a complicated regimen is now one pill a day for many people. For people new to living with HIV, there is a network of professional case managers, health care providers, and community-based organization staff trained to help arrange medical appointments, assist in the transition to daily medication, and support people in sharing their status with friends and loved ones. 

Access to treatment has expanded dramatically in the four decades since we first discovered HIV. The Ryan White Care Act was first passed into law in 1990 and has grown significantly since then to include medical care and other services to help people living with HIV achieve and sustain an undetectable viral load for years at a time. Ryan White Part B funds the Insurance Assistance Program, which allows eligible people living with HIV access to medical coverage for their whole health---not just their HIV. Through the Insurance Assistance Program, people living with HIV who qualify for Ryan White can pick from a set of insurance coverage options and then Ryan White will help cover the costs of their premium, copays, and deductible. This allows people living with HIV to access their healthcare the same way other Americans do, supports other aspects of their health, and gives them additional privacy related to their health. For Tennessee residents who receive Ryan White Part B benefits, the special enrollment period for the Insurance Assistance Program runs until August 15th. Click here for more information or ask your Ryan White Part B case manager.   

As we approach National HIV Testing Day (June 27) we can all celebrate how much has changed when it comes to getting an HIV test. People who want to know their HIV status can find a provider in their area who will give them a no-cost rapid HIV test and support if the result is positive. Many of these providers are now able to give people the choice to either take a rapid test in the office, or to take a test with them to do in the privacy of their own home. While HIV tests used to mean weeks of waiting on a result, rapid tests can now tell a person their HIV status in 20 minutes or less. For those people looking to celebrate National HIV Testing Day with others at an event, signing up for the statewide HIV weekly email and following testing providers on social media are great ways to learn more about upcoming celebrations.

How we think about HIV has changed dramatically in the four decades since we named it. AIDS was an unknown syndrome, but is now known, screened for, and treated worldwide. HIV was once a death sentence but is now a chronic condition. HIV was an illness people were so afraid of sharing that receiving a diagnosis meant a fundamental life change. It is now a part of a person’s health that does not stop them from starting new relationships, having children, and making future plans. It was once the case that people living with HIV could receive world class treatment for it but still not have access to care for their other health concerns. It is now a health issue that people can manage while getting access to standard health insurance coverage. A person’s HIV status was a question that required searching through providers to make an appointment for a test that would take weeks to yield a result, but is now as easy as signing up for a rapid test at a local agency or picking up a test to take at home. 

This June as many of us get our vaccines and leave our homes to enjoy Pride events and gatherings with friends and family, we can all take some pride in the part we’ve played in changing what it means to live with HIV in Tennessee. 

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