Mobile unit testing, medical case management and prevention education are among expanded services that one of the state’s largest community health centers is offering to combat the growing number of HIV cases in the Lowcountry region.
Family Health Centers Inc. recently held an HIV symposium at its new state-of-the-art training center in Orangeburg. Dr. Bambi Gaddist, co-director of the Rural AIDS/STD Prevention Centre, was the keynote speaker.
Gaddist said it was time to “rekindle the fire” when it came to promoting awareness and education about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“How is it that after about 40 years we find ourselves in the same predicament where people say to us, ‘Oh, they still have AIDS? Is it still a problem? I thought you handled that,” she said.
“So when I say rekindle, I mean start burning again, and I’m not talking about syphilis either. Somewhere we lost it. Somewhere we were talking about it. What we’re trying to do is revive it,” Gaddist said.
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Selena L. Lowery, MBA, MA, is director of HIV services at FHC.
Lowery said the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s 2020 epidemiological profile of HIV and AIDS in its Low Country public health region, which includes Orangeburg, Bamberg counties and Calhoun, revealed alarming statistics.
“What we’ve seen in there is Orangeburg County in particular, which is the fastest growing county in the Lowcountry in terms of new HIV cases. It resonated with me,” she said.
Orangeburg County had the highest rate of new infections with 32.9 cases per 100,000 population, surpassing Charleston County with its rate of 18.6 cases per 100,000. Bamberg County’s rate of new infections was 7.1 per 100,000 population, while Calhoun County’s rate was 10.4 cases per 100,000.
FHC’s HIV prevention and care services include: free rapid HIV testing; medical case management; Screening for STIs; mobile unit testing; HIV prevention and education; first aid; and behavioral health.
The facility will also provide pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a drug taken to prevent contracting HIV. The Centers for Disease Control reports that PrEP is highly effective in preventing HIV when taken as prescribed, reducing the risk of contracting HIV through sex by approximately 99% and injection drug use d at least 74%.
“We want to partner with your church’s health ministry, we want to partner with your schools, we’d like to partner with hospitals, other health care professionals in the community – not just in the county of ‘Orangeburg,” Lowery said.
Gaddist said too many people still don’t know about PrEP or other preventive measures.
“We have HIV prevention by injection. People don’t have to take a pill every day. They can get an injection, and it can last for months. There are many other things that can be used now, but if our people don’t know about them and we don’t offer them, then what’s the point? she says, noting that health care must be associated with compassion and love.
“We have the stigma. He is still very much alive. This is why we are still in the situation in which we find ourselves. People here still hear about HIV and say, “I don’t want anything to do with it. … We have to take care of the elephant in the room, and I talk about it with us.
“We can’t blame the other community. We can’t blame the white community. We have homework to do. Sometimes we have to talk to people in authority, and that’s not a comfortable place,” Gaddist said.
Lowery was joined at the symposium by members of her team, including Almanda Holiday, medical case manager; Antonio Gathers, Chief Prevention Navigator; Jamaar Wilson, Community Health Specialist; and Rhonda Thomas, Outreach Coordinator. The team also includes nurse practitioner Towanna Enoch, who was absent from the conference.
Lowery said the FHC has two mobile units with two exam rooms. One is currently being phased out among Orangeburg, Bamberg, Calhoun and Upper Dorchester counties.
“What we’re looking to do is go to some of the most vulnerable areas to provide access to services that were typically not available to those communities. … We reached the very, very rural areas,” she said.
Lowery continued: “We now offer community testing. We try to do that with incentives just to get people used to the test, and we try to put different communities on a three-month rotation.
She said the goal is to get people used to testing and to get people who don’t have HIV used to hearing the prevention message.
Gaddist said the mobile units will be crucial in helping create access to healthcare, especially in the South.
“We have had more new infections in the South. Fifty-two percent of HIV in 2019 was in the South. We’re talking about the South where people have to drive to get to a date. We talk about why it is essential to have a mobile unit and to bring the services to people. Let’s talk for real. Getting around isn’t easy when you live in a rural area and you have to drive 45 or 50 miles round trip,” she said.
Gaddist said all hope is not lost, but it will take a concerted effort by the whole community to revive initiatives that were once the norm in the fight against HIV/AIDS, including town hall meetings.
“We need to revive what we are doing. We try to approach different spaces, non-traditional partners. … In the end, we can fight this. We can do something about it, and I’m sure it will take exactly what’s in this room,” she said.
FHC chief executive Leon Brunson said the expanded HIV services were made available through grants.
“We got a bunch of HIV grants. When I looked at this two years ago and looked at the data, we had to do something in the community. So we started applying for grants. We got over $2 million to run this program, and we just requested another $3 million to continue working in this area,” he said.
For more information about HIV prevention services, call the FHC at 803-531-6900 or 866-506-9342 or visit online at www.myfhc.org.
Contact the writer: [email protected] or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD