“When the crisis comes, we all pull together naturally. It’s easy then. It’s when things drag on too long that we have to make the effort. We need to make sure everyone sees we are all in this together.”
— Author James S.A. Corey
Our current COVID-19 and longstanding HIV/AIDS pandemics have spotlighted the undeniable significance of public health education and awareness campaigns.
Notably, World AIDS Day was designated on Dec. 1, 1988, as the first-ever globally recognized health day. On this commemoration, people unite in our collective human battle against HIV/AIDS, while joyfully celebrating survivors living with HIV and remembering those who have died from this dreadful disease.
Like the COVID-19 pandemic, our global introduction to HIV and AIDS in 1981 generated overwhelming fear, acute illness and untimely deaths as our world was blindsided by a new and unknown virus. I poignantly recall hospital wards being full of acutely ill patients with AIDS and related opportunistic infections during my medical school training in the mid-1990s at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Many patients were young. Tragically, many died.
Without question, we have made remarkable global scientific and public health advances in the treatment and prevention of this terrible disease, which has claimed nearly 33 million lives since the epidemic began. Thankfully, incredible scientific advances such as antiretroviral drugs have enabled people with HIV who effectively access treatment to live healthy, long and productive lives. Nonetheless, and most unfortunately, HIV/AIDS remains a very real and present danger in 2020, especially now as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose serious threats to vulnerable patients with compromised immune systems.
Thirty-eight million people, including nearly 2 million children, are living with HIV. Nearly a third of those infected with HIV do not have adequate access to effective treatment. In fact, only 80% of patients know they are infected. Sadly, nearly 2 million patients are newly infected on an annual basis. Aggressive pursuit of an effective vaccine against HIV continues. Thankfully, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication taken daily is now effective to prevent HIV in high-risk individuals.
For over two decades, The Wright Center for Community Health has demonstrated our devotion to effectively addressing and preventing the spread of HIV through our Health Resources and Services Administration-designated Ryan White HIV Clinic that cares for nearly 500 patients living with HIV from seven counties in NEPA. The impact of the dedicated servant leadership of infectious disease experts Dr. Shubhra Shetty and Dr. Stephen Pancoast; Sister Ruth Neely, CRNP, and Karen McKenna, RN; and the rest of our incredible staff serving patients with HIV, can never be overstated. Our recent engagement of infectious disease specialist Dr. Mary Lou Decker and service line manager Shane Cobert have been welcomed, mission-amplifying additions.
Currently operating out of our clinical/educational/administrative hub in South Scranton, the Ryan White HIV Clinic continues to not just save lives, but markedly improve them. We provide confidential testing services and continuous, coordinated care for patients diagnosed with HIV. Thanks to monumental advances in antiretroviral drug regimens and unparalleled teamwork, the majority of our patients are now showing undetectable viral rates. Besides providing patients with their critical daily medication regimens, our care teams offer a holistic, empowering approach with mental health counseling and support groups as well as social engagement activities.
Dedicated case management teams support patient adherence to the consistent, coordinated medical and mental health treatments needed to lead healthy, productive lives. Thanks to vital funding provided by the United Way of Wyoming Valley, our HIV case management staff specifically assist patients in securing housing, food, insurance, transportation to appointments, utility assistance, hearing aids, vision care, dental care and mental health and drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The clinic’s prison linkage program thankfully provides the same extensive case management services to incarcerated and recently released patients with HIV/AIDS.
The clinic continues to welcome new patients, and accepts all insurance plans. And, as a Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike and Essential Community Provider of safety-net care focused on delivering right-venue, high-quality, affordable health services to all regardless of insurance status, we offer a sliding fee discount program to those unable to pay and ineligible for Medical Assistance.
Considering all of the great advances being made in our battle against HIV/AIDS, our children may hopefully be the generation that sees the eradication of HIV/AIDS. Achieving our federal government’s bold initiative to eliminate HIV in America by 2030 is certainly a wonderful thing to ponder! Until then, there is still much work to be done, and I can assure you The Wright Center for Community Health’s Ryan White HIV Clinic will be at the forefront of it.
Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.