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Expanded HIV testing efforts - would benefit entire county, country
  By Clark Williams
Viewing last week's 2006 State of the County address, I was impressed by Santa Clara County Supervisor Jim Beall's plea for ``additional funds for a Public Health Department capable of protecting us all.''
In articulating the financial benefits of a strengthened public health system dedicated to disease prevention and early diagnosis, Supervisor Beall said, ``we all benefit when we reach out and help the most vulnerable in our community.''
Jim Beall could not be more right.
Twenty five years after an article in the New York Times reported an outbreak of a rare ``cancer'' in gay and bisexual men living in New York City and areas of California, nearly 550,000 Americans have lost their lives to AIDS.
Among those dead Americans are nearly 2,000 residents of Santa Clara County. As Santa Clara County is in the heart of our nation's HIV/AIDS epidemic, most residents know of at least one close friend, a beloved family member, a respected business associate or a friendly neighbor who has courageously battled this disease.
Today, more than 2,500 Santa Clara County residents are still battling HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that one in three Americans infected with the virus remain undiagnosed, an additional 800 Santa Clara County residents could have the disease but do not yet know that they are infected.
The cost to county taxpayers of this hidden epidemic is enormous. Researchers estimate that the average, per-patient lifetime cost of HIV treatment is $155,000, and these costs escalate dramatically if patients' learn of their HIV diagnosis only after suffering a serious illness. Unfortunately, far too many newly diagnosed persons learn of their infection only after receiving hospital-based emergency room services.
In 2003, the CDC announced several key public health strategies that could reduce the nation's estimated 40,000 annual HIV infections. With updated HIV prevention efforts now focusing on risk reduction counseling to persons known to be infected with HIV, the CDC strongly recommends that local health departments expand and improve their public HIV test counseling programs in order to identify more persons infected with the virus.
San Francisco offers more than a dozen HIV test counseling locations that are strategically placed in communities with populations seeing the highest rates of HIV infection. In comparison, despite a county population that is twice the size of San Francisco, Santa Clara County operates just one permanent location for anonymous HIV test counseling services.
As nearly 80 percent of all local cases of HIV/AIDS are among gay and bisexual men, many South Bay community leaders are urging the county to establish a permanent, full-time, HIV test counseling program at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center. The DeFrank Center is a venerable non-profit agency with a long history of providing quality HIV prevention services for persons and communities at greatest risk of HIV.
With Latinos, homeless and runaway youth and chronic substance users disproportionately affected by the local HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Public Health Department also needs to develop and implement a network of at least five permanent, part-time, HIV test counseling sites located throughout the county.
In urging cost-effective legislative action that will improve the overall health and well-being of all county residents, Supervisor Beall spoke for those whose lives have been impacted by HIV/AIDS when he said, ``The hands of human need are close -- not far. They are the hands of people reaching out for hope. We must reach back, grasp them with our hands, and embrace them with our compassion, to help them survive through hard times.''
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