What You Need to Know About AIDS Today
Although December 1 is World AIDS Day, at Stony Brook we work every day of the year to raise awareness, promote testing, provide early intervention, offer the latest treatments and serve as Suffolk County’s premier Designated AIDS Center (DAC) and resource for children, adolescent, adults and women who are pregnant with HIV and AIDS. Here’s what our experts have to say about how treatment has evolved, the outlook has improved, the testing guidelines have changed — and what else you need to know now.
If there was just one thing people could understand about HIV and AIDS, what would it be?
That it is a highly treatable illness. It is no longer the dire diagnosis it once was. Today, people can typically live 10 to 20 years with the HIV virus without developing AIDS. This is primarily due to new medications that offer a simplified treatment regimen, fewer side effects and a better quality of life. Today, HIV is now treated more like a chronic illness and less like a health crisis, which translates into longer, healthier lives
What is the one thing that people don’t know, but should?
That people may not be aware they are infected with the virus. They may look and feel fine, but because they don’t know they have HIV, they are in danger of spreading it and/or developing more severe complications. Like so many diseases, the outlook for HIV is best when detected early.
As a result, in 2010, the state of New York instituted new testing laws asking hospitals to put a program into place over time, in which all patients receiving care — inpatients, outpatients receiving primary care or patients in the emergency department (ED) — be offered an HIV test. The test is voluntary and, of course, completely confidential. Besides helping with early detection, the new testing mandate keeps HIV/AIDS awareness on top of everyone’s mind and makes it just another part of a strong preventive health routine. Stony Brook’s HIV testing program is hospital-wide.. One of the reasons this testing law has been implemented is because of the success of an earlier law that asked women who are pregnant to be tested voluntarily. Today, in New York State, the mother-baby transmission of HIV has all but been eliminated
So who should get tested?
New York State guidelines recommend that everyone from age 13 to 64 should be tested at least once, and preferably once a year. The first test is a baseline. If it comes back negative, it should be repeated in three to six months because the test measures the presence of antibodies in the bloodstream — not the presence of the virus itself — and the virus takes time to develop. If that test is also negative, the person should continue to practice safe behaviors, as well as become educated on transmission. An important misconception to clarify: Just because you tested negative does not make you “immune” to the virus. You have to continue to be safe. So as a corollary, it makes sense to continue to get re-tested as well.
Specific HIV Testing is another area where great advances have been made. Stony Brook offers two kinds of confidential tests: the rapid test, with its under-an-hour turnaround for results, and the more traditional blood test, which delivers results within approximately a day. Both state-of-the-art tests are highly sensitive (detecting the proportion of people who are correctly identified with having the disease) and specific (detecting the proportion of people who are correctly identified as not having the condition) for HIV. This helps eliminate the “false positives” of earlier generation tests and gives an accurate diagnosis
I tested positive, now what?
First, remember that highly effective treatments are now available. And second, know that the latest treatments, including clinical trials, are available at Stony Brook. Stony Brook has long been a leader when it comes to HIV and AIDS and is the go-to hospital in Suffolk County. With its outstanding care for patients, it serves as a resource for other hospitals, and is a training facility for physicians and an educator for the community. In fact, it is the only facility in Suffolk County, Nassau County, Queens and Brooklyn to have continuous National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding since 1992. Stony Brook’s Maternal Child HIV Center is just one of nine Centers of Excellence in the state, as designated by the New York State AIDS Institute
What services does Stony Brook offer?
Stony Brook provides testing, treatment, clinical trials, resources and support through three separate programs: adult, pediatric/adolescent and maternal/child. They all share a similar approach, however, in that they are comprehensive, team-based and ongoing. Once patients are referred to one of these centers, they receive individualized, coordinated care led by an infectious disease physician specializing in HIV. Additional services are also available to patients through grant-funded programs, including clinical trials and research initiatives, Medical Case Management, Medical Nutrition Therapy, Behavioral Health Education, and Treatment Adherence Services. If additional support is needed, the team connects patients with resources both at Stony Brook and in the community for emotional support, family support, case management, , therapy, financial assistance for medications, and whatever interventions are appropriate for the patient. Stony Brook is the hub of the Suffolk County network, so patients have unparalleled access to the services they need.
Any final thoughts?
We can’t stress it enough: Be smart, get tested. There really are no barriers to testing and treatment anymore. At Stony Brook, testing is there for the asking — quick, accurate and totally confidential. You’ll also find state-of-the-art treatment in your own backyard. Lack of health insurance should not be a barrier, either, as we can connect patients with assistance programs and other community safety nets.
If you have questions about HIV or AIDS, call Sherry Hatcher, Stony Brook’s HIV Coordinator, at (631) 444-3592. She can answer most of your questions or refer you to someone who can. The line is secure and all calls are confidential.
For more information about the Adult HIV Center, call (631) 444-1667.
For more information about the Maternal-Child or Pediatric/Adolescent HIV Center, call (631) 444-7692.