New Orleans and Baton Rouge are in the top three U.S. cities for HIV diagnoses, according to a recent National HIV Surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 70119 zip code in Orleans Parish has the highest rate in the No. 1 killer of African-American women 25 to 40 years old.
But this could change with the arrival of a confidential, free and quick test available at all Access Health (711 Broad St., 504-609-3500; www.accesshealthla.org) locations in southeast Louisiana. After a finger stick, people get their results in one minute. The NO/AIDS Task Force also offers free testing citywide and results take about an hour (www.noaidstaskforce.org/testing).
Knowing one's HIV status is a way to prevent transmission of the disease, says Dr. Mark Alain Dery, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University's School of Medicine and director of the school's T-Cell Clinic.
"One in five people who are living with HIV are unaware that they have HIV, and those 20 percent are actually responsible for 60 to 80 percent of new viral transmissions," Dery says.
People who know they are HIV-positive are less likely to keep having unprotected sex and more likely to get on medication that decreases the viral load in their systems. That means they're less likely to infect others. Sexual intercourse is the main way the virus is spread. Transmission from sharing needles for injecting drugs accounts for 10 percent.
Dery believes it's much more beneficial to get an HIV test in a clinic instead of using a home test kit. He says the immediate counseling patients get could make the difference between living a long, healthy, high-quality life or not.
Dery says HIV is no longer a death sentence; it's a chronic illness like diabetes and cancer.
"Now [that] we've got [treatments] down to one pill once a day, you can keep that viral load significantly diminished," Dery says. "And once your viral load goes down, the immune system comes back up."
Dorian-Gray Alexander was diagnosed with HIV in 2006. His HIV is now undetectable, and new treatments mean he can live a normal life.
"If you do have HIV ... you can live a vital, healthy life for a long time," Alexander says. "I plan to live a very long life."
Look for Meg Farris' Medical Watch reports weeknights on WWL-TV Channel 4 and any time on wwltv.com.