Oct. 9, 1997 is a date that will always stick out in the memory of a 53-year-old client of AIDS Alabama South, because it was the day he found out he had HIV. The black male, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was tested for the virus when he first arrived and was processed at a Montgomery jail.
“They isolated you,” he said. “They didn’t tell you. You assumed something was wrong, but you didn’t know what it was.”
He was eventually told he was infected and was transported to Limestone Correctional Facility, the only prison at the time for inmates with HIV.
“I was scared,” he said when he first found out. “I kept hearing about how people were dying. I heard horrible stories.”
The prison would supply him with the medication he needed and he would attend a regular program to learn how to live with the virus. Once he came to terms with the diagnosis, he began to help others in prison.
He was released from Limestone in 2002, but went back to jail twice more, including in 2010 for a probation violation. He said living with the virus affected his mindset.
“I was in a cycle and I couldn’t break the cycle,” he said.
He said he has cleaned up his act since his most recent release and relies on AIDS Alabama South for help dealing with the virus.
“This is one of the greatest organizations out there,” he said. “I love everybody who works here. They bring joy to the life of a man like me.”
The man is far from alone, as the nonprofit organization serves clients in a 12-county area in southwest Alabama. In all, AIDS Alabama South serves 411 active clients with three licensed social workers on staff, Executive Director Lanita Kharel said.
“You talk about an overload of case management; I’ve got the best staff that ever breathed,” she said. “They’re the most dedicated, loyal, compassionate people and they get paid very little to do their work.”
During the budget process, Kharel asked the city council for $16,000 through the performance contract process. But AIDS Alabama South was one of several organizations left out of the 2015 budget.
All of those 411 clients live below the federal poverty line and some are homeless, Kharel said. Social workers help in many ways, but most importantly they help develop life plans for clients. Kharel said life plans are supposed to help make clients more independent.
In addition, AIDS Alabama South helps with housing, nutrition, hygiene, financial assistance and assistance with oral health care, Kharel said.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic hasn’t gone away, Kharel said, it has moved southward. This is true in Mobile County, which has seen 90 new cases of HIV this year. That’s an increase over last year’s 88. There were a total of 669 new cases in the entire state in 2013. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of 2014 there were 393 new cases this year. She said higher poverty rates, higher incarceration rates and a lack of “comprehensive sex education” has led to the movement of the virus.
“We do not in Alabama, or in Mobile County, have comprehensive sex education,” Kharel said. “We have abstinence-only education and that’s inadequate.”
AIDS Alabama South provides education at local Boys and Girls Clubs, but hasn’t been welcome in Mobile County schools, Linkage to Care Specialist Tiffany Collins said.
“We are involved in Dotch Community Center at Trinity Gardens,” Collins said. “You know, so we’re unable to get into the schools right now, but we are going to exercise other avenues.”
Collins said the organization is currently in discussions with Saraland High School. She said a local clinic has made presentations at Davidson High School.
Kharel said presentations at local schools would be a positive step. She said the organization could customize the presentation to cover topics the teacher or principal would want.
Education is important, Kharel said, as 85 percent of the new cases in Mobile County are adolescents and young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
It’s also important to get tested for the virus. If treated the right way, a patient’s viral load can become undetectable, making it less likely that they’ll transmit it to someone else. Kharel said with a suppressed viral load, a patient has only a 2 percent chance of passing the virus on.
“So, that means they’re compliant with their regimen every day,” Kharel said. “If they stop taking their meds, their viral load comes back up, their white blood cells go down and over an amount of time they will get sick. Only 28 percent of the population are undetectable.”
A key to helping stop the spread of the virus is to get everyone tested, Kharel said.
“We have to identify people living with HIV or AIDS and then we have to get them health care,” she said. “When their viral loads are undetectable, they are 98 percent less likely to transmit the disease to someone else.”
Anyone above 12 years old can come to AIDS Alabama South and get tested for HIV. The free, confidential testing is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the office located at 2054 Dauphin St. Results are available in 20 minutes.
Kharel said the stigma attached to the virus, especially down here, sometimes prevents folks from getting tested.
“The stigma is so great here, especially among the women,” she said. “They do not want to come through our front door because we have a sign outside with a red ribbon on it. They want to come through the back door.”
As for the 53-year-old client suffering from the virus, which is currently undetectable in his system, he’s making plans to attend Bishop State Community College in the spring.