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Damien Center leader shares Indiana’s resources for people with HIV

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — People who work on the front lines of the HIV epidemic on Thursday said it’s crucial people who have been exposed know the resources available to them.

Damien Center President and CEO Alan Witchey said the key to preventing or mitigating HIV is early detection. He said more than a thousand people are estimated to have HIV in Marion County alone and are not aware of their status. Witchey said many organizations, such as his, offer free tests that can detect HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections within minutes. If a person tests positive for HIV, Witchey said it’s important to begin viral suppression treatment right away and keep the person in treatment.

The Indiana Department of Health’s HIV Services Program includes a range of medical services, such as drug assistance, mental health and early intervention, as well as support such as housing and food assistance. Jeremy Turner, the director of the department’s Division of HIV, STD and Viral Hepatitis, said those services are provided through partner agencies. Besides the Damien Center, examples include Positive Resource Connection in Fort Wayne, IU Health’s Positive Link clinics and a number of county health departments. He said HIV medications can reduce a person’s viral load to the point that the virus not only cannot be detected but also cannot be transmitted, so early detection of cases helps stop the spread.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at finding people before they’ve progressed to AIDS,” he said, “We see see fewer and fewer people develop AIDS as medications have gotten better and as we’ve expanded the type of services that people need to keep them retained in care.”

Turner said providing wraparound services such as food and housing assistance is key to keeping HIV patients in treatment.

CDC data show Indiana had the third-highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the Midwest in 2020. Witchey said many of those cases are linked to substance abuse, so lawmakers should expand access to syringe exchange programs to prevent sharing of needles. He said the Damien Center already has a syringe exchange program and it has proven quite popular. He said he would like to see routine HIV testing in all hospitals and expansion of insurance coverage of HIV medications as well.

In addition to the state of Indiana, the Marion County Health Department provides a range of services for people living with HIV and their loved ones. Witchey said the federal government has named Marion County as a priority in its effort to reduce HIV infections by 90% by the end of the decade.