NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - There's a new way to fight the HIV epidemic in New Orleans, and doctors say it's the key to saving lives and stopping the spread of the disease in our community.
It's called the Rapid Start Program and New Orleans is one of only a few cities in the country doing it.
"Locally, we have a very high burden of disease," said Tulane infectious disease specialist and Crescent Care Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nicholas Van Sickels. "New Orleans, unfortunately, is ranked and Baton Rouge in the top five the last several years for new cases of HIV, advanced cases, which is AIDS and the number of people who are getting diagnosed each year."
The program started in December at Crescent Care, a New Orleans community health center. Already, 32 people have been diagnosed and quickly treated.
"When you look at other cities in the country, there are one or two other cities in the entire country that are starting people on therapy as early as we are, no other city in the Southern United States, so this is our best way to fight the HIV epidemic," said Crescent Care physician Dr. Jason Halperin.
This is how it works: Patients can learn the results of their HIV test within minutes. If positive, they will meet with a doctor and be treated with life-saving medicine within 72 hours.
"Today with our fantastic treatment, people will do incredibly well. Their life expectancy is actually no different than if they didn't have HIV once I get their immune system back to a normal immune system," said Halperin.
Not only does that help the patient, it also prevents the spread of HIV in the community.
"Within the first three months, we can get people what's called virally suppressed. Once they're virally suppressed, that immune system comes back to normal and they're not able to transmit the virus to anyone," said Halperin.
Before the Rapid Start program, it would take four to six weeks to see a provider. Now, Crescent Care patient navigator Katie Conner coordinates quick appointments and even arranges transportation to the clinic.
"I had somebody who tested positive one night. I got the call while I was driving home, I drove over, met them, set up the appointment for 9 a.m. the next day, was able to get them an Uber there, and then they saw the doctor and got started on meds right away," said Conner.
Testing and treatment are free through a partnership with the New Orleans Health Department and with the help from federal funds.
"We've seen the course of this epidemic, and I think at this time I would say that it's probably as problematic as it has ever been for the city, so to have this opportunity to pilot or to test the Rapid Start program with Crescent Care is a wonderful opportunity," said New Orleans Health Department Director Marsha Broussard.
And doctors agree it's the key to fighting the epidemic in New Orleans.
"We can give you medicine if you think you have been exposed to HIV, we can get it covered, we can pay for it, we have ways to get treatment covered for people and we can treat you immediately," said Van Sickels.
Doctors at Crescent Care say the other way they're fighting the spread of HIV is through a pill called PrEP. It's for those who test negative and are at risk. When taken daily, it's more than 90 percent effective at preventing HIV infection.
For more information on how you can get tested and treated through the Rapid Start program click here.