Still Searching for a Cure
AIDS in New Mexico
Tim was diagnosed with HIV when he was 44. He’s still not sure how he got it—it could have been the couple years of injection drug use back in the late ’80s, or he might have picked it up from his girlfriend, who has an ex with an affinity for prostitutes.
But, considering the circumstances, Tim can consider himself lucky. Although his girlfriend has a full-blown case of AIDS (she was tested as soon as Tim discovered he has HIV in 2002), the virus pervading Tim’s body hasn’t yet developed to that stage. And due to the cessation of all drug and alcohol use upon his diagnosis, Tim is even feeling a little healthier than he has in years past. Of course, all things are relative. In addition to HIV, Tim has hepatitis C, liver problems, anemia, hypersensitivity, arthritis and muscle fatigue, among other things, many of which are due to his infection. He takes a lot of naps. He isn’t able to work. Because of his past addictions, he’s not allowed to take painkillers.
Fortunately, Tim has the support of his family, his two teenage boys, his girlfriend and her two kids. He’s not alone.
AIDS is the kind of disease no one wants to talk about. While our national media is permeated with stories about the overhyped bird flu and West Nile, one of the deadliest viruses in human history, which still has no cure, nor vaccine, goes mainly unnoticed.
Now seems like an appropriate time to break the trend, because this year marks the 25th anniversary of the first diagnosed case of AIDS, discovered in the United States. During that quarter-century, while the virus itself hasn’t changed much, if at all, the social dynamics around it have shifted immensely. What used to be considered a “gay men’s disease” now affects every race, gender, class, age and sexual orientation on Earth.
We see it here in New Mexico, with more than 3,100 people like Tim currently living with HIV, about 1,900 of whom have AIDS.
As most of us know, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the final stage of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a virus that attacks and destroys the immune system over time, eventually leaving the body’s natural defense so weakened that it’s unable to fight against other infections that lead to death. The disease was first reported in California and New York in 1981, and quickly became an epidemic in the ’80s. Those most at risk of contracting HIV are injection drug users who share needles and those who have unprotected sex. Currently, about 3 million people die from AIDS each year worldwide. More than 20 million people have died from the disease since 1981.
Although there are still a number of obstacles the world faces in trying to cope with AIDS, there are some things happening in our corner of the globe with the disease that deserve celebration. According to Steve Jenison, medical director of the Infectious Disease Bureau in the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico has among the lowest rates of AIDS in the nation, due mainly to successful prevention efforts.
New Mexico is one of only two states in the country (Hawaii is the other) that has legislation that makes it mandatory to offer syringe exchange, wherein people can turn in their old needles for new ones and lessen the chance of contracting HIV from sharing needles. While the program has been controversial nationally—in some states syringe exchange is illegal—it’s been shown to have great success rates.
“Syringe exchange doesn’t just protect injection drug users,” says Heather Cowan, Family Services Outreach coordinator with New Mexico Aids Services, “it helps the community.” Cowan says syringe exchange helps keep dirty needles off the streets and is significantly less expensive than it is for the state to pay for people’s AIDS medications, the price of which usually ranges between $20,000 and $30,000 a year per person.
Another reason why Jenison thinks the state has been successful in keeping AIDS rates low is because of the collaboration used across agencies and organizations to do outreach work to those at high risk for contracting the disease—such as injection drug users, gay men and the homeless.
Dominick Zurlo, program coordinator for Harm Reduction Outreach with Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless (AHCH), says homeless people are at three times the risk of contracting HIV as the general population. Because of this, AHCH performs more than 27 hours of outreach each week, including syringe exchange programs, and works with individuals to assess their needs. An example he gives is going to the Metropolitan Detention Center and talking with sex workers to educate them on how to better communicate with “tricks” and get them to use condoms. For some, the organization can help them find a safer place to stay.
Yet despite overall success in New Mexico, there’s still a lot of work to be done. According to Jenison, approximately 150 people are diagnosed with HIV every year in the state, and about 50 people die every year from the disease. The main road to prevention still seems to lie in education, which in today’s world can be difficult.
Cowan knows the feeling. Going out to schools, jails and detention centers on a regular basis to give presentations on AIDS prevention, Cowan says sometimes the system can be stifling. She uses a recent trip to a Northeast Heights elementary school as an example. Cowan says she was invited to the school to talk to fifth-graders about AIDS, but was restricted from discussing sex or condoms, a crucial part of AIDS prevention. Instead, she ended up mainly talking about the immune system.
“Abstinence has a higher failure rate than condoms,” says Cowan, adding that, although there’s nothing wrong with teaching abstinence, safe sex education is extremely important in STD prevention. When Cowan visited the school, she asked students if they’d heard of HIV or AIDS; out of about 200 students, one-third or one-fourth raised their hands, but were unable to explain what it was.
Still, New Mexico is fortunate. With a number of organizations and agencies dedicated to helping people cope with AIDS and preventing further spread of the disease, it seems as though we have all the right elements in place. Yet “until there’s a cure, the work of those people is only going to increase,” says Jenison. “We have to remember: This is an epidemic that is going to change the course of human history. We have to do what we can locally, but continue to think of the big picture.”