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HIV Conference in New Orleans & Katrina Affect
  'Staying Alive' in the Big Easy
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One of the lessons that every New Orleanian learned from Hurricane Katrina is that life cannot be taken for granted. Life's fragility is something that people with HIV/AIDS, as well as their family and friends, have been intimately acquainted with for the past 25 years-long before Katrina ever blew up from the Gulf.
A positive HIV/AIDS test triggers a personal fight for survival for everyone diagnosed with the disease. Some have been lucky-they're still here and doing reasonably well. But the prospects for other men, women and children living with HIV, whether here in New Orleans or other parts of the country, may be less optimistic. Yesterday, the nation's most important annual conference of people living with HIV/AIDS, appropriately called "Staying Alive," opened for five days of discussions in New Orleans.
Since the AIDS epidemic began a quarter-century ago, people with HIV have had to be strong in the face of adversity. In the early years, widespread stigma and discrimination, combined with an absence of antiviral medications, took a heavy toll. Today, one of the biggest challenges is to connect people living with HIV to the wide array of effective, and rapidly improving, treatments that are now available.
Last year, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, this task was immense in New Orleans. With the city's infrastructure destroyed by the storm, getting life-saving HIV drugs for thousands of residents in need was challenging. These folks had survived the hurricane, only to wonder if they would survive HIV as their prescriptions ran out. It was a double whammy. Most people left New Orleans and many HIV-positive individuals sought care elsewhere, or dropped out of care as other losses became overwhelming.
Katrina's impact is still being felt: four of the eight hospitals in Orleans parish remain closed and accessing specialty medical care can be difficult. Still, many people living with HIV have returned to the city. Louisiana 's AIDS Drug Assistance Program-a vital lifeline for patients who need medications but do not have adequate insurance coverage-struggles each year to meet the needs of its clients, and regularly implements cost-cutting measures like restricting available medications that can be accessed through the program.
This situation endangers the well-being of many of the 15,000 people with HIV/AIDS in Louisiana, a significant number of whom lived in New Orleans. It's also the reason why the theme for this year's Staying Alive conference is "Access Matters." High on our agenda is to make sure that as the City of New Orleans is rebuilt, we are also rebuilding the service network needed to keep people with HIV healthy. We need to do even more. We'll also be looking at how this city can match the very best in HIV care that America has to offer.
Just a few months ago, the FDA approved the first-ever one-pill-a-day treatment for HIV infection-a major advance compared to the complex, multi-pill, frequently-dosed AIDS "cocktails" of only a decade ago. Experts hope that advances such as these will help patients lead longer, healthier lives. Our challenge is to ensure that every patient in New Orleans who could benefit from this medical progress gets access to it.
When I think about what it takes to be an HIV survivor, I know that a stable living environment and the ability to obtain life-extending medications are crucial. Following Katrina, many local people with HIV lost their homes, but are now gradually regaining a solid foundation for their lives. However, without adequate medical care, it is less certain that they will receive the medications they need. It's time to guarantee access to quality medical care, including HIV care in New Orleans. At this week's conference, our message is clear: Let's not allow HIV or the lingering effects of Katrina to claim any more lives in New Orleans.
Noel Twilbeck, executive director of the NO/AIDS Task Force
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