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New Orleans facing HIV epidemic

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

New Orleans is facing an HIV epidemic. 

"It's been bad for several years, we've seen statistics for syphilis, for gonorrhea, for babies born with syphilis that are number one and number two in the nation, and for HIV, New Orleans has been in the top five for the last several years," said Dr. Nicholas Van Sickels.

Van Sickels is a Tulane University infectious disease specialist and the chief medical officer of Crescent Care, a community health center. He says a number of factors are contributing to the high HIV infection rate in New Orleans. 

"One is late diagnosis, one is stigma, fear. One is just the fact that there is a high burden of disease in the city, so you're just more likely - based on sheer numbers - to encounter somebody that might be infected," said Van Sickels. 

On Thursday, local and state health officials went before the City Council to address the epidemic. 

"We want to make sure that people who are diagnosed are getting into timely care," said DeAnn Gruber with the Louisiana Office of Public Health.

"New Orleans has a serious problem with HIV-AIDS and also with the other STIs. We ranked among the top 19 cities in the nation for the past 10 years. We serve more individuals with HIV every year, but every year more people become affected by this virus," said Fran Lawless with the New Orleans Health Department.

Van Sickels says Crescent Care is collaborating with city partners to change that. They'll soon start a new program called Rapid Start. That's an HIV test with results in just a minute. If positive, the patient will get immediate access to medication and support. 

"We're going to be getting people from the moment they're diagnosed, brought in immediately, see a provider, start on their medications that same day, that same moment, have counseling on the back end and make sure we get them set up for insurance and that we get their medications covered and we take care of all of it," said Van Sickels. 

And, that's something he says is critically important to improving a patient's outcome and preventing the spread of HIV.

"The treatment is enormously beneficial, the earlier we get you on treatment, the better your life expectancy," said Van Sickels. "The importance of starting medication at day zero cannot be emphasized enough, because if we can get your virus controlled to where we don't see it in your blood, the faster that happens, the less likely you are to transmit it."

Crescent Care will launch the Rapid Start program on Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day. 

Dr. Gruber told the City Council that the Louisiana Department of Health was awarded two federal grants last year to implement a number of different initiatives in the New Orleans area to fight HIV. Among those, improving awareness and access to PrEP, that's a pill for those who are HIV negative. Gruber says when taken daily it can help reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 92 percent.

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