The University of Mississippi Medical Center is taking its HIV and AIDS prevention work to the jailhouse.
The hospital announced recently that Gilead Sciences, a Foster City, Calif.-based biopharmaceutical company, is providing funds for a voluntary HIV testing program at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond. News of the 12-month $202,000 grant came last week during National HIV Testing Week.
The funds will cover the cost of medical equipment and a nurse from Quality Choice Correctional Healthcare, which provides medical services for the detention center.
Dr. Leandro Mena, associate professor of infectious diseases at UMMC, said Gilead is focusing on Jackson because it is among the 12 cities in the nation where HIV is most prevalent.
"This is an important part of our broader HIV-prevention strategy to diagnose and treat HIV in the metro Jackson area," Mena said. "With this program, we will be able to include members of the incarcerated population."
About 25 percent of the people with HIV that UMMC treats have been incarcerated, Mena said. Because Jackson has the fourth-highest per capita rate for new HIV infections in the U.S.— 25.3 per 100,000—Mena's team expects the testing program to be a successful prevention strategy.
Jackson has the second-highest rate of HIV infection among men at 30 per 100,000 people compared to 8 per 100,000 for women. The Mississippi Department of Health reported that African American men account for 75 percent of the 547 new infections in Mississippi in 2012. Because of the disproportionate numbers of black men in jail, testing and treatment of the incarcerated population is imperative to tackling those high rates, Mena said.
The HIV testing began last week. Floyd Brown, director of health services at Quality Choice Correction Healthcare, said that the program begins with a round of rapid testing, which involves finger sticks for blood samples. If the initial test is positive, the inmate will be re-tested to verify the result. The UMMC team will provide treatment options for inmates with two positive HIV tests, even after their release. The team will give information about prevention and invite former inmates to continue their treatment with UMMC.
The program will also improve tracking of HIV-positive inmates.
"(UMMC) approached us with a proposal to set up the program so we can have voluntary consent to track the prevalence of inmates (with HIV) as they come in and out of the facility," Brown said.
"We're trying to identify the possibility of them being HIV positive so as not to have the filtration of folks going back into the community and infecting unsuspecting citizens. ... You can't help but think about migration. If life is not going so well for them in a certain location, they tend to want to go somewhere else. If they bring the existing infection along, the vicious cycle takes place there."
Brown said that the program is also coming to the Hinds County Penal Farm and the jail at the sheriff's office in downtown Jackson. He also hopes to add the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center to the testing and treatment program.
Assistant Chief Lee Vance of the Jackson Police Department said officers always have a chance of encountering people who may have communicable diseases, so there are no special procedures for dealing with suspects who may be HIV positive.
"It's kind of difficult for us to have a particular protocol because, obviously, we are police officers, not physicians, nor do we have employees that work for the health department," Vance said.
"We take caution in dealing with people, regardless. It's not against the law to have a syringe. It's a risk that officers take, and we can't make any distinctions because we don't have any way of identifying these people through some type of official channel."
Vance acknowledged that a person may be punished under the law if he or she knowingly spreads the virus.
Under state law, any person who knowingly exposes another person to a communicable disease can be guilty of a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to five years in prison or both.
Mena said that one of the major problems in preventing the spread of HIV is the likely high number of people who are unaware that they are infected. Solving that problem is a driving force for UMMC's prevention plan.
Another barrier is the lack of quality health-care services to HIV and AIDS sufferers. Especially in Mississippi's LGBT community, Mena said that people are afraid of testing because of the dual stigmas associated with being gay and with HIV.
The Open Arms Healthcare Center in Jackson will help with prevention, Mena said. The center, a program of My Brother's Keeper Inc., is addressing the alarming rate of new HIV and AIDS cases in African American men by offering free HIV testing as well as other infectious-disease treatment services.
Mena also cited the lack of quality, medically accurate health and sex education for Mississippi's young people as a problem on the preventative front. Young people are at risk when they are uninformed, and most schools only allow abstinence-only "sex" education. "It is almost impossible to address (students) directly," Mena said.
He recounted an experiment involving several young adult men, many of whom did not know how to properly use a condom.
Mena said his team is working with several school nurses in the area to overcome this disadvantage, and is encouraging more communication between parents and their children about sexual health.