Baton Rouge already leads the nation in diagnosed HIV and AIDS case rates, but an additional 900 to 1,000 people in the capital region are living undiagnosed with the disease, a local civic group was told Wednesday.
René Taylor, executive director of Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on Wednesday that the city needs more HIV testing if it hopes to shed its No. 1 ranking in HIV and AIDS cases per 100,000 people.
The idea for greater testing is that the more people who are made aware that they have the virus, the better the chance of getting them into treatment and stopping them from infecting others.
Finding the 900 to 1,000 HIV-positive people who are living in Baton Rouge and unaware of their status is difficult, Taylor said. They could be in a variety of places throughout the community, she said, ranging from nightclubs to homeless shelters.
In addition to identifying people who do not know their status, Taylor said, it’s critical to ensure that people who do know they are HIV-positive are taking their medication and going to doctor’s appointments.
In 2014, about 24 percent of the more than 5,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in Baton Rouge were not receiving care, according to estimates from the state Department of Health and Hospitals and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Taylor lauded strides made in San Francisco to increase HIV testing, to drop HIV rates and to eliminate stigma around the disease.
“At one point, San Francisco was at ground zero, the place where we are today in our community,” she said.
She said she and others who work with the HIV community in Baton Rouge are trying to follow in the footsteps of the San Francisco successes.
The advantages San Francisco has in fighting HIV, she said, are having vocal political leaders leading the fight, having a close-knit medical community, having a city health insurance program and having enough wealth to counter cuts in federal aid.
Taylor said Baton Rouge recently has assembled a quality management committee that is collecting data on people with HIV being linked to medical care, taking their medication and having their viral loads suppressed.
“We’re collecting data that we have not collected in previous years,” Taylor said.
Like most medical care professionals in Baton Rouge, Taylor said she does not know of a clear-cut answer to why Baton Rouge has such high HIV and AIDS case rates. She also said a “miracle drug” will not fix Baton Rouge’s AIDS problem.
But Taylor speculated that an influx of New Orleanians to the capital region during and after Hurricane Katrina caused a spike in rates here that has never gone back down.
Still, Taylor said the stigma is so strong in Baton Rouge that people who are diagnosed with HIV often go to see doctors in other cities.
“I’m sure there are lot of individuals who are not aware that we are No. 1,” she said.