Since launching its HIV testing program in 2013, Grady Hospital in Atlanta diagnoses an average of two or three patients with HIV every day. Yes, every day.
“This is something that keeps me awake at night,” Dr. Abigail Hankin-Wei tells WABE.
Hankin-Wei runs the hospital’s FOCUS HIV testing program, the only emergency department in Atlanta that offers HIV testing to every patient that comes into the hospital regardless of their reason for being there.
“Among our patients at Grady, nearly half of them have AIDS the day we diagnose them,” Hankin-Wei says.
Atlanta is ranked first in the nation when it comes to the rate of new diagnoses of HIV/AIDS. According to WABE, it takes approximately eight to 10 years for untreated HIV to advance to clinical AIDS, which means many patients at Grady Hospital who test positive have been living with and potentially spreading the virus for many years without knowing it.
“Diagnosing people to get people on treatment is our best method to prevent further transmission,” Wendy Armstrong, the director of the Ponce de Leon Center, an AIDS care facility in Atlanta, tells WABE.
“Our massive group out there who are not tested are folks out there who often don’t have primary care physicians because they’re young, and there’s not a need for that and no insurance if they they did wish to have a primary care physician,” Armstrong says.
Experts say other reasons people don’t get tested may include stigma, fear of a positive diagnosis, or lack of transportation. People might also think they’re not at risk because they’re in a monogamous relationship.
According to the CDC, around 14 percent of Americans with HIV or AIDS don’t even know they’re infected.
Hankin-Wei says she often sees a steady stream of patients suffering with non-existent immune systems because of untreated HIV when working the overnight shift at Grady Hospital.
“Those patients, we have failed,” she said. “I want to be clear. We: physicians, lawmakers, public health professionals.”
Hankin-Wei believes making routine HIV testing part of all health care is the first step ending this problem.