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NJ Health Department Report: Over 2,000 People Living With AIDS or HIV in Middlesex County

As Treatments Improve, More People Living Longer Despite Deadly Immune Diseases
NJ Dept. of Health

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The rates of HIV and AIDS in both New Brunswick and Middlesex County have steadily declined, according to an annual report by the New Jersey Department of Health.

The report stated that, between 1990 and 2013, an estimated 3,200 Middlesex County residents had been diagnosed with AIDS, and an additional 1,064 residents had been diagnosed as having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Of those, 2,215 passed away, leaving 2,098 residents who live with one of the ailments today, according to the report.

Of all 25 Middlesex County municipalities, New Brunswick has the highest rate of both HIV and AIDS. 

"New Brunswick is definitely the epicenter in Middlesex County for HIV... The bulk of the cases are here," Jodi Ricardi, Senior Director of Program Development at the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation.

Even still, the Hub City did not make the Department of Health's list of the top ten cities in New Jersey with highest rates of HIV and AIDS. 

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is an acquired illness which destroys the body's ability to fight off infections. Specifically, HIV kills off T-cells, also known as CD4 cells, which are responsible for the bulk of the immune system's work.

HIV can often lay dormant in the infected body for several years at a time before activating.  Once the virus kills off enough CD4 cells and the body is no longer able to fight off diseases, infections and foreign pathogens, the infected individual will develop Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

As the U.S Department of Health and Human Services points out, HIV does not automatically mean an individual will acquire AIDS.  Should an invidual detect the virus early enough, such treatments as antiretroviral therapy (ART) can suppress HIV in the infected person. 

During the early-to-mid 1990's, Middlesex County saw an average of 260 AIDS/HIV diagnosis a year, while New Brunswick saw an average of 35 cases a year.

In 1991 alone, 240 county residents died from HIV and AIDS, while New Brunswick lost 45 residents to the diseases that year.

One year later, the city's death toll increased to 65.

But over the past ten years, both the rates of death and diagnosis by HIV and AIDS have seen a steady decline.

Since 2004, Middlesex County saw an average diagnosis rate of 73 cases per year, with 43 cases being diagnosed in 2012, 42 in 2011, down from 72 in 2010. 

New Brunswick also saw a decrease in its annual rate of diagnosis.

In 2012, 10 individuals were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. In 2011, there were 8 diagnoses, down from 16 in 2010. 

Most of those diagnosed in New Brunswick fell within the age range of 25-34 and 35-44.

Of the 956 people diagnosed as of December 2012, 554 of them were African-American, while 251 of them were Hispanic. 

For men diagnosed with AIDS or HIV as of 2012, 246 of the diagnoses came as a result of injection drug use, 188 the result of male-to-male sexual contact, and 126 the result of heterosexual contact.

Women with HIV or AIDS locally reported that 187 cases were the result of heterosexual contact, while 119 were the result of injection drug use.

In the report, the New Jersey Department of Health uses a national average to estimate that as much as 21% of infections and illnesses in the state of New Jersey might be attributed to undiagnosed or unreported cases of HIV or AIDS. 

HELP FOR THOSE IN NEED AVAILABLE IN HEALTHCARE CITY

Healthcare professionals employ an array of treatment methods to combat HIV and AIDS, though the two disorders cannot be "cured."

The majority of treatment methods work by disrupting the replication process of the HIV virus, thereby slowing it down and minimalizing its impact. 

One method of treatment includes medicine called Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTI's), which disable proteins necessary for HIV to replicate itself.

Another method utilizes Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTI's), which, as faulty versions of building blocks used by HIV to replicate itself, can sabotage the replication process of the virus.

The other three medication methods are known as Protease inhibitors (PI's), Entry or Fusion Inhibitors, and Intergrase inhibitors. 

In New Brunswick, the main treatment facilities for HIV and AIDS are the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, Robert Woood Johnson University Hospital (RWJ), Rutgers Health Services, and Saint Peter's University Hospital.

RWJ operates of number of health centers across New Brunswick, all of which provide free HIV testing and rapid HIV blood testing.

These include the Eric B Chandler Health Center, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School HIV Counseling and Testing Site, and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School AIDS Program.

New Brunswick is also home to the headquarters of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, a statewide organization foundedi n 1986, which focuses on advocacy, treatment, education and resources for this with HIV and AIDS.

"The epidemic we fight affects the people in our communities who are most vulnerable to HIV infection and death due to the impact of poverty, racial discrimination, and homophobia on their lives," reads the organization's mission statement.

Hyacinth currently operates seven facilities across New Jersey, with the largest being in New Brunswick, and others in Paterson, Jersey City, Trenton, Newark and North Plainfield.

The New Brunswick facility is on George Street and focuses on resource areas such as prevention, testing & education services, legal client advocacy, pastoral & emotional well-being, care & treatment, and mental health couseling.

"This past year, our Middlesex County office [assisted] 172 HIV clients," said Johanne Rateau, Director of Regional Services at the Hyancinth Foundation, "Out of that number, 122 were residents of Middlesex County and 44 of them lived specifically in New Brunswick."

Of the 44 clients, 10 were female, while 34 were male.  Thirteen of these individuals identified as white, 26 individuals identify as black, and 5 individuals identified as "other."

According to Rateau, several of the 13 white individuals also identified as white Hispanic, while several of 26 black individuals identified as black Hispanic.

Furthermore, the Hyacinth prevention program has served 25 residents of New Brunswick in the past year.

Services are funded through state and private grants, and those seeking services do not have to pay. Changes in insurance, such as with the Affordable Care Act open enrollment period, will not affect the level of treatment sought out or provided, since the foundation does not offer direct medical services.

According to Rateau, services include "mental health therapy, psychosocial counseling, treatment adherence counseling, medical case management, legal advocacy and benefits counseling, prevention education, testing and pastoral counseling, and referral services".

Rateau told New Brunswick Today that the foundation "assists clients with health insurance applications, advocacy and re-certifications."

As of May, 161,775 New Jersey residents signed up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

An additional 98,240 residents signed up for Medicare, bringing the total to 260,015 NJ residents who signed up for healthcare during the Affordable Care Act's open enrollment period.

Also based in New Brunswick, Rutgers Health Services offers STI (Sexually Transmited Infection) testing, as well as affordable contraceptives for its tens of thousands of students.

Health Outreach Promotion and Education (HOPE), the student involvement arm of Rutgers Health Services, trains sexual health advocates, who run workshops on broader topics of sexual health, for student groups, residents halls and classes. 

Rutgers Health Services however, does not provide treatment services, which would instead be referred to Robert Wood Johnson Infectious Disease specialists.

"That is not to say we do not provide health services," says Francesca Maresca, Director of HOPE.  "We do but we are not equiped to provide the specialized services that are required."

Students are required to have their own health insurance, or sign up for the Rutgers Healthcare Plan.

New Brunswick Today was not able to acquire the rate of students of receive these services for HIV or AIDs, as that information is categorized as confidential.

Rutgers Health Services, did however, disclose the rate of students who utilize the University's health insurance plan.

As of the Spring 2014 semester, 6,244 undergraduate students, 2,102 graduate students and 2,218 international students utilized the school's health insurance. 

The University did not anticipate that the Affordable Care Act would significantly impact the rate of enrollment in the Rutgers Health Insurance plan.

"Despite the opening of the insurance exchanges, the Rutgers Student Health Insurance Program provides better coverage with less cost sharing, Even with credits and subsidies," EJ Miranda, a Rutgers University press officer, told New Brunswick Today.

"So it is very cost effective for full-time students."