WSAZ Investigates | Fighting HIV

Once an epidemic in the 1980s, health professionals say HIV is no longer a death sentence.
Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 6:40 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Once an epidemic in the 1980s, health professionals say HIV is no longer a death sentence.

With proper treatment, people are living long and healthy lives after their diagnosis.

“This is not a death sentence,” said Larrecsa Barker, a Cabell County paramedic, and leader of the Quick Response Team.

The transmission continues to be primarily among the persons who inject drugs (PWID) population and has not currently been identified in other populations or risk groups, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).

Within days of someone having an overdose event, the Quick Response Team (QRT) makes contact with the patient, offering support and services to get them help along with preventive care.

The mobile team includes a paramedic, a police officer dressed in plain clothes, a faith leader, and a peer coach which is someone who has a lived experience with addiction.

QRT began offering HIV testing on-site for clients in 2023 within the comfort of their own homes. Expanding preventative care has always been a goal for the team, but QRT leader Larrecsa Cox said they recently started.

Cabell County was determined to be the epicenter of an HIV cluster in 2019, with 66 diagnosed cases, according to the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health.

West Virginia Bureau of Public Health data shows Cabell County reported 33 cases in 2021 and then saw an increase in cases during 2022, reporting 57 HIV cases.

“We do not have a rapidly expanding outbreak. We lost some ground from where we had been,” said Cabell-Huntington Health Department Director Dr. Michael Kilkenny.

That lost ground Kilkenny is talking about involves testing.

Data provided by the Cabell-Huntington Health Department on the number of HIV tests issued...
Data provided by the Cabell-Huntington Health Department on the number of HIV tests issued since 2018.(WSAZ)

“Yes, we had extra cases. We’re very confident from the investigations we had that those cases did occur during those years that we weren’t as active,” Kilkenny said.

Kilkenny said the health department’s testing alone isn’t enough. Health professionals believe new testing opportunities offered by QRT provide a better picture of the spread.

“There is no shame in knowing your status. It can feel embarrassing, but take charge of your health and know your status,” Barker said. “When we know better, we do better.”

WVU infectious disease expert Dr. Sally Hodder centered her career around fighting the HIV epidemic beginning on the front lines in the 1980s.

Hodder believes the keys to stopping transmission and preventing another cluster come down to expanding access to low-barrier testing and meeting people where they are.

“I think perhaps HIV in this state is much more prevalent, and I think there is some mobility. I think it’s not just as Cabell but as a state, we need to focus on just HIV testing but the availability of effective programs which is the treatment of substance use disorder and syringe services programs,” Hodder said.

The QRT also offers HIV testing at their medical outreach events at the Huntington City Mission.

The community outreach events will be located outside the Huntington City Mission Chapel, 624 10th St., Huntington, on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at 4 p.m. The services currently offered include testing, vaccinations, and service referrals.