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On World AIDS Day and every day, Erie County’s top doc wants you to get checked

Avery Schneider

World AIDS Day – a global effort to bring attention to the ongoing HIV epidemic – is being observed today. In Erie County, where more than 100 new cases of HIV are diagnosed each year, the County’s Department of Health is working to raise awareness through the media, online, and with partners in the community. Here’s what the county’s top doctor wants you to know.

It’s important to know your status. That’s the advice from Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein.

“We know that many of our transmissions in New York State and Erie County are from people who are unaware of their HIV diagnosis,” said Burstein. “[We] know that in New York State and in the United States around 15 percent of people who do have HIV are unaware of their diagnosis.”

From 2011 to 2015, the numbers of people newly diagnosed with HIV have risen by 27 percent in Erie County, without explanation. And from 2010 to 2015, they averaged over 100 per year, adding to the now 3,000 people living with HIV or AIDS.

Burstein said there are a number of measures people can take to protect themselves and others, from getting tested and practicing safer sex to taking the once-a-day Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis pill, known in short as PREP. PREP reduces the possibility of contracting HIV if a person is exposed to the virus, and is recommended for those who are considered at risk. Burstein said the largest risk factor is men having sex with men, however infections can occur in other relationships and among those taking part in injection drug use.

“Anybody who is concerned that they may be at risk can come into the clinic and talk to us, and we can help them think about their risk and help them think about what they can do to protect themselves,” said Burstein.

The county’s sexual health clinic is located at 608 William Street and offers confidential, rapid HIV testing. The testing and access to PREP is available at little or no cost for those who may not be able to afford it. HIV testing is also readily available throughout the community through health care providers and numerous community organizations.

In 2014, when Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out a three-point plan to end the epidemic in New York by 2020, the Erie County Department of Health joined a subcommittee to help. Project Coordinator Michael Chase said the county, along with other local organizations have been reaching out to at-risk populations.

“I know we look at the number and say, ‘When we start seeing an increase in the numbers of HIV testing, is that because we’re doing a better job out in the community and getting people to go in and find out what their status is?’ I like to believe that’s true, that all of us, as this organization, is out there doing what we’re supposed to be doing and getting people informed, and getting them in to be tested,” said Chase.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans are the group most affected by HIV in the United States. Among them, gay and bisexual men account for the majority of new diagnoses.

Free HIV testing will be offered by the county during a Friday night hip hop and alternative concert at the C.R.U.C.I.A.L. Center at 230 Moselle Street on the City’s East Side.

“It’s an awareness evening,” said Chase. “It’s a time for kids to come together in a safe place.”

The event is being presented by Leaving Our Legacy, a group of teens and young adults who connect peers in the LGBTQ community and communities of color with health education. The event begins at 7 p.m. Admission, food, and testing are all free.

Reminders from the Erie County Health Department:

- Get an HIV test.

- Practice safer sex if you have more than one sexual partner or if you do not know your partner’s HIV status.

- If you are HIV negative and at risk for HIV, consider taking PREP (one pill, once a day).

- If you are infected with HIV, get treatment to stay healthy and to prevent transmission to others.

- Encourage friends or family members who are living with HIV to stay in health care and take their medications.

- Talk to your children about HIV prevention.

- Take a stand against HIV stigma.

- Take a leadership role in your community by explaining to others the importance of HIV prevention.

Websites and resources:

- Erie County Department of Health

- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

- healthychildren.org

- Bedsider

- Go Ask Alice!

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.