Despite Lack of Funding, RI AIDS Organizations Still Going Strong
AIDS Care Ocean State and AIDS Project Rhode Island, the largest AIDS service organizations in the Ocean State, were at a State House commemoration of World AIDS Day, sponsored by the Rhode Island HIV Prevention Coalition. Featured speakers included Gov. Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox. Though the event was uplifting, Rhode Island's HIV epidemic endures a lack of resources.
"Unfortunately, an increase in HIV infection for at-risk groups could occur in coming years, as government funding for primary HIV prevention to community groups evaporates in Rhode Island on Dec. 31," said Tom Bertrand, executive director of AIDS Project Rhode Island. "Funding to conduct HIV prevention and education for five community-based initiatives will be discontinued at the end of 2012, leaving community-based funding solely for HIV testing and retaining people living with HIV in medical care."
APRI is part of the HIV Prevention Coalition, formed this past spring with the goal of lowering the incidence of new HIV infections in Rhode Island through collaboration, education and advocacy. It comprises 22 community-based groups and other partners who meet regularly to support efforts to reduce HIV among high-risk groups through primary prevention efforts.
The rates of HIV infection among gay and bisexual men and in communities of color continue to skyrocket, and the Rhode Island Department of Health HIV/AIDS Epidemiological Profile indicates that the virus continues to be a persistent public health problem in the state, with 106 new HIV infections reported in 2010.
The coalition noted that the proportion of young adults (ages 20-29) being reported with new HIV infections is growing. The percentage of new HIV infections in Rhode Island among that group grew from 18 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2011 -- the largest increase for any age group during this time frame.
Bertrand points to Massachusetts as an example of how an investment in community-based HIV prevention and education can yield positive results.
"In recent years, Massachusetts has invested about five times more per capita than Rhode Island in HIV prevention at the community level, and their overall rate of new HIV infections has dropped about 46 percent since 2000," Bertrand said. "During that same time, Rhode Island has only seen a 16 percent decline. I think we can do better, but it will require leadership by community groups, government agencies and elected officials."
AIDS Project Rhode Island was founded in 1985 by a group of doctors and community activists. The agency provides counseling and services to people living with HIV/AIDS. APRI operates an HIV testing program, Take Charge! Get Tested!, to help Rhode Islanders learn their HIV status in a safe environment. Rapid testing is done free on a walk-in basis every Tuesday and Thursday. APRI provides testing for individuals and couples.
APRI also administers Ryan White Title II-funded services to HIV-positive people whose income levels fall at or below federal poverty guidelines. In 2008, APRI merged with ASO Family Service of RI, which serves about 9,000 children and adults a year; about half of clients belong to minority communities.
AIDS Care Ocean State, Rhode Island’s largest ASO, provides housing, case management, medical and nursing care, and prevention to children and adults at risk for contracting HIV.
Paul Fitzgerald, ACOS’s executive director and chief executive, said it conduct 1,400 HIV tests a year. Outreach workers visit neighborhoods in Providence with highly susceptible populations. They also distribute condoms and clean needles through a needle exchange program.
"People want information, if they’re worried about being HIV-positive, we can test them and refer them into care," Fitzgerald said. "It’s a very comprehensive program. We’re very inclusive. We’re able to reach out into the gay community; we’re able to reach out into the minority community."
In addition, ACOS supports treatment for children and infants infected with HIV at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and the Miriam Hospital.
"We have an existing network of medical providers," Fitzgerald said. "We bring kids into care and follow them very closely. That’s been very effective."
The largest provider of subsidized housing for people living with HIV/AIDS, ACOS has 129 units throughout the state, Fitzgerald said. It recently received a $1.7 million federal grant that will enable it to obtain more housing.
"We’re constantly building more housing," Fitzgerald said, noting the huge demand.
ACOS runs two support groups, both open to anyone who is HIV positive:
Gay Male Support Group meets Wednesdays from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. at 156 Broadway in Pawtucket.
The Solace Youth Group is designed for teens and young adults with HIV. Members discuss their struggles and triumphs since learning their positive status. The group meets Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at 557 Broad St. in Providence.
With continued vigilance and additional funding, Rhode Island ASOs will continue to battle the Ocean State’s HIV epidemic.