AIDS care in S.C. spotty

COLUMBIA -- Many HIV-positive people in South Carolina get tested late, get into care late, and don't stick with their medical care, according to a new statewide study by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Almost three quarters of 2,129 South Carolinians who tested HIV-positive from 2004 to 2006 did not get medical attention within 60 days of being diagnosed. Almost two-thirds weren't in care 90 days after.

A second DHEC study found that 14 percent of the 1,500 diagnosed in 2004 and 2005 didn't show up to the doctor's office at all. That percentage sounds small but has a big impact, said Dr. Wayne Duffus, medical director for DHEC's STD/HIV division, who led the research. "It's like compound interest. It gets bigger every year."

Of those people who did show up for care, 80 percent were not consistent about it.

"As a practicing physician and a public health official, those are numbers I'm not proud of," Duffus said.

South Carolina, with its largely poor, rural population, is hard hit by lost wages and treatment costs for people who are in their primary working years. For example, two-thirds of people in the state with HIV/AIDS are between age 20 and 39. The problem is compounded by poor state funding for HIV prevention and treatment efforts.

When people get tested early and get into treatment, they can lead healthier lives and lower their chance of passing the HIV virus on to others. Recent CDC guidelines calling for routine HIV testing in certain health care settings will mean greater numbers of people finding out that they are HIV positive.

"It's not enough just to diagnose them, said Dr. Jerry Gibson, director of DHEC's Bureau of Disease Control. "One of the bottom lines is, can we get people into care."

When people start and stop their medications, they can develop drug-resistant mutations of the HIV virus and pass them on to others. As a result, many who are newly diagnosed find standard treatments do not work for them and have to resort to more toxic, more expensive drugs.