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You Have the Right to Treatment

By Joseph Bick, M.D., F.I.D.S.A., A.A.H.I.V.S., C.C.H.P.

May/June 2012

Q: My brother is currently in jail, and may end up doing time in prison. I know that he was doing drugs on the street. The last time that I saw him, he had lost a lot of weight and he didn't look healthy. I am worried that he may have HIV. My brother is afraid to get tested, and I do not know what to do. Please help!

-- Lindsay

A: Thanks for advocating on behalf of your brother. He is lucky to have you!

Your brother could have HIV, though his weight loss might also be due to his drug use or he may have another medical condition that needs treatment. The only way that he will find out is by seeing a health care provider for a thorough evaluation.

Inmates of jails and prisons have a constitutional right to health care, including treatment for HIV disease. Only by knowing his HIV status can your brother get the care he needs to get healthy and stay that way. The time he spends in jail and prison is also a perfect opportunity to start getting a handle on his substance abuse. If he is not ready to stop using drugs, he can learn how to decrease his risk of picking up dangerous infections. By doing so, your brother will have a much better chance of staying off drugs when he is released, and avoiding a return to prison.

If your brother is HIV-positive, treatment can provide him an opportunity to live a long, productive life. Unfortunately, approximately one in five Americans who are HIV-positive do not even know it. Of those who are infected, one-third are diagnosed so late that they develop a serious infection or cancer within one year. The earlier that HIV is diagnosed, the greater the chance of preventing these infections and cancers from developing. In addition, HIV treatment causes HIV-positive people to be much less infectious to their sex and needle-sharing partners.

Please encourage your brother to get a thorough evaluation that includes testing for tuberculosis, HIV, and hepatitis B and C. While in jail or prison, he will have to fill out a form requesting to see health care staff for these tests. You can also help him by checking out community resources that he can transition to when he gets released. Best of luck to you and your brother!

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