FAIRBANKS — With nearly half of HIV-infected Alaskans lost to follow-up care with their health care providers, the state is launching a new effort to better link those patients to treatment.
The statistics of HIV and AIDS patients in Alaska show that they’re less likely to be linked to care than in other parts of the U.S., where about two-thirds of patients are receiving ongoing care. The state estimates that 622 HIV-positive people are living in Alaska. Of those, just 54 percent meet the federal definition for being in medical care. About 40 percent meet the case definition of achieving viral suppression.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services believes those numbers can be improved upon. The state is using a three-year, $420,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address the problem.
“It’s concerning enough that we want to do something about it,” said state HIV/STD program manager Susan Jones. “Just finding them is the first step.”
The program, which was just launched by state health officials, will work to locate HIV-infected patients who aren’t in medical care. When those people are identified, program staff will contact health-care providers to work to reintroduce them into care.
The CDC grant will pay for staff to locate HIV patients who aren’t in treatment and do marketing and outreach.
Jones said there’s even more incentive to get HIV-position people into medical care than there used to be. Effective new treatments greatly increase to chance of making a patient virally repressed, which lessens the opportunity for the virus to spread to others. A growing trend in HIV management is to look at treatment as a key element of disease prevention, she said.
“They are significantly less infectious,” said Sam Senft, the state manager for HIV prevention and care. “It’s much harder to transmit with a suppressed viral load.”
Jones said drugs have improved dramatically in recent years. In many cases, handfuls of pills have been replaced by a few. For patients who struggle to pay for HIV medicine, there are many programs available, she said.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the state who wants these drugs that we haven’t been able to find a way to pay for them,” Jones said.
State officials say there are a variety of reasons why HIV-infected patients lose contact with health-care providers. Some feel they can’t continue for financial reasons, didn’t like the drug regimen they were on or simply moved out of state without telling anyone. It’s also common for HIV patients to be part of at-risk groups, such as drug users or transients, who may have other problems competing for their attention.
Tracey White, program director at the Interior AIDS Association, said it’s rare of any of her clients to simply vanish. She said the organization focuses on getting clients vested in programs that meet their needs.
“Once somebody is in our care, we do everything we can to keep them in care,” White said.
Senft agreed that most issues can be worked around to offer ongoing help. Participation in treatment programs is voluntary, but he said the state has numerous ways to guide HIV patients through the process.
“These folks are really facing a lot of barriers to getting care and they need a lot of help,” Senft said. “The resources do exist — people don’t always know about them.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.