Lincoln battles misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and a rising infection rate

Diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, Erin Fulton has given birth to two healthy girls who are HIV negative.  Photo courtesy of Erin Fulton

Diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, Erin Fulton (right) has given birth to two healthy girls who are HIV negative. Photo courtesy of Erin Fulton

Story and photos by: Meghin Williams, NewsNetNebraska

The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates of new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections in the United States to be about 1.1 million people. Lancaster County is also seeing an increase in new HIV cases.

NewsNetNebraska conducted an informal survey on the UNL campus to see how many students have been tested for HIV/AIDS. Many students admitted that they had not been tested. Many also said they had no desire to be tested for HIV.

us-statistics-2“No, I haven’t, there’s no way I have that,” said one student who preferred to remain anonymous.

For some students HIV/AIDS has a stigma which makes the virus a topic to avoid. This is the case even though more than half the students NewsNetNebraska interviewed  for this story admit to being sexually active.

“There is a big stigma about being dirty, being gross, or being gay. We are fighting these kinds of things and people don’t realize that we are all at risk,” Stephanie Herrick from the Nebraska Aids Project said.

“When I was diagnosed I tried to be honest with everyone about my status and I lost a lot of friends, I didn’t have many friends the rest of the time I was in high school.”

The Nebraska Aids Project (NAP) ls helping to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS. It offers HIV/AIDS testing and education.  NAP community engagement specialist Stephanie Herrick said the stigma that comes with HIV/AIDS is a big reason why people choose not to get tested. This contributes to the increase of the passing of the virus.

Fulton and Herrick agree that lack of education about the virus is what creates the stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS and what makes people shy away from being tested.

“We try to educated people, tell them how they can make the risk of them contracting it smaller, Herrick said.”

What is HIV/AIDS?

According to the CDC HIV is a virus that is spread through body fluids that affects specific cells of the immune system. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of the cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. When this happens, HIV infection leads to AIDS. Currently there is no cure for HIV/AIDS but there are ways to prolong life.

Where does Lincoln fall on the spectrum?

Between 2009 and 2011, Lancaster County saw HIV infections go from 456 to 740.

Dr. Jim Nora, an infectious disease specialist in Lincoln says the increase nationally is because public health agencies can’t make a “dent” in the new cases per year.

“With about 50,000 new cases nationally and only 20,000 deaths that leaves 30,000 new cases every single year which has been going on for several decades.” Nora said.

With such a high number of new cases education has become a key component in the management of HIV/AIDS.

How is it spread?

According to CDC:

  • Having unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with someone who has HIV
  • Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual behavior.
  • Vaginal sex is the second highest-risk behavior.
  • Having multiple sex partners or having other sexually transmitted infections can increase the risk f infection through sex.
  • Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV.

Nora says an estimate of one out of five people with HIV don’t realize it, and the CDC has issued a recommendation that everyone between the ages of 13-64 be tested at least once, and those with high risk behaviors (unprotected sex) should be tested more than once.

“The most important thing is finding people who have HIV and getting them treatment.” Nora said.

UNL Peer Counselor Stephanie Hernandez waits for students at the testing center.

UNL Peer Counselor Stephanie Hernandez waits for students at the testing center.

HIV/AIDS Risk Management at UNL

In an attempt to help make a “dent” in HIV/AIDS education and prevention the University Health Center offers confidential, free HIV testing and counseling for any fee paying UNL student.

Lee Heerten a wellness educator on sexual health at UNL said not only is free testing available, testing and risk reduction counseling similar to the NAP on how to lower your risk is also an option.

“The testing takes 15 minutes, it’s a quick finger prick, that is then put in a serum that tells us if there are HIV antibodies in your blood, we give you the results and if you are positive, we offer you counseling, and refer you to the health center so they can weigh their options,” Heerten said.

Trained peer counselors administrate the test as well as counseling.

“We chose peers because we feel that it makes people more comfortable,” Lee said.

Peer counselor Stephanie Hernandez has been involved with the HIV/AIDS testing centers on campus for three years.

“I think it is important for everyone to know their status, I recommend it to all my friends because you never know,’ Hernandez said.

A student who would like to remain anonymous visited the testing site after one of her friends was diagnosed.

“It’s scary, I mean I’ve only had two sex partners but just the fact that it only takes one of them to be infected to infect me is a scary thought. I was pretty sure that I didn’t have it but just the reassurance of having the test result, makes me feel good.”

The free HIV testing is every Friday from 12-4pm at the Gaughan Center on campus.

What’ Next for HIV/AIDS

All of the sources agree that knowledge is power when it comes to HIV/AIDS.

Doctor Nora says an estimate of one out of five people with HIV don’t realize it.

“People have to understand that many people don’t know that they have HIV/AIDS, it can happen to anyone and the easiest way to deal with it is to get tested.” Nora said.

Erin Fulton believes getting tested is what saved her life.

“Because I got tested I could get treatment, I think that’s what keeps me here today,” Fulton said.

Organizations like the Nebraska Aids Project, Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, and the Students for health at UNL are hoping to educate and encourage people to get tested.

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