North Carolina has an estimated 35,000 residents living with HIV/AIDS, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) told a congressional roundtable she recently co-hosted. "What that makes clear is that we not only have a prevention problem, but we also have an access to care problem," she noted.
"I'm particularly concerned about the limited access to appropriate care and HIV specialists for North Carolinians in our rural communities," said Hagan. "It is clear that we need to shine a spotlight on this critical issue, and I'm hopeful that this roundtable will be a start."
The state has 31 American Academy of HIV Medicine-certified physicians, and most are based in Charlotte. Very few HIV specialists practice in the western part of the state outside of Asheville, said Dr. Todd Wallenius, medical director of Western North Carolina Community Health Services, who has provided HIV care for nearly 15 years. But lack of access to care is not the only barrier: Many patients in rural areas also struggle with HIV/AIDS stigma.
"It is still tremendously difficult for patients living in, say, Rutherford County, to get the best care for reasons ranging from the stigma of an HIV diagnosis to reliable transportation," Wallenius said.
Wallenius cited the work of the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, which serves 18 counties. WNCAP has launched a new campaign, "Bringing Prevention to Life," aimed at addressing the root causes of HIV stigma. "This stigma keeps people from getting tested. Not getting tested means not getting treatment early, before the disease starts to destroy the immune system," said WNCAP Executive Director Jeff Bachar.
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