The last time local HIV/AIDS treatment made headlines, it took an Elton John fundraising controversy to call attention to the issue. You may remember how things played out last March: The University of Montana, in an effort to woo the pop star back to the Adams Center, offered to raise $75,000 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The move irked local advocates, who stressed just how much Missoula patients could use some of that money. The sides eventually compromised, with John’s foundation redirecting $20,000 to local groups.
Exactly a year later, there’s more news that underscores the needs of local HIV/AIDS organizations: Missoula’s Partnership Health Clinic reports a startling increase of 17 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses across western Montana last year, including eight in Missoula County. That’s about three times what had been the norm since the clinic opened in 2002.
“It’s not like there’s an infection outbreak so much as a diagnosis outbreak,” says Partnership’s Mary Jane Nealon. “It’s a very good thing.”
Nealon largely attributes the new diagnoses to organizations like the Missoula AIDS Council and Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, which are actively encouraging and enabling more people to be tested. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control have normalized the testing procedure.
Christa Weathers, prevention coordinator for the Missoula AIDS Council, says it’s pretty simple: more awareness begets more testing begets more diagnoses.
The Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, for instance, has recently targeted gay and bisexual men who primarily use the Internet to hook up for sex by promoting rapid HIV/AIDS testing on sites like craigslist.org, manhunt.net and gay.com. Director David Herrera says the campaign is part of a national effort to target high-risk individuals who don’t normally consider getting tested.
“The worst thing for us to think about is that there are people in town or in the area who don’t know they’re infected,” Nealon says.
While the number of new HIV/AIDS patients shows progress, it also puts a strain on local organizations. Nealon says Partnership relies on treatment funding from the Ryan White Care Act, the largest federally funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS. Those funds have dried up, leaving the clinic to rely entirely on local United Way donations—totaling $68,000 for HIV/AIDS treatment since 2003—until the end of this fiscal year. That’s hardly Elton John money, but just goes to show how much these organizations rely on precious local funds.