On World AIDS Day, a Q&A about HIV and AIDS in Oklahoma

AIDS/HIV memorial. Photo by byronv2.
AIDS/HIV memorial. Photo by byronv2.

Since 1988, health advocates around the world have recognized World AIDS Day as an opportunity to unify in the fight against AIDS. To learn more about HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma, we spoke with Kathy Williams, executive director of Health Outreach Prevention Education, Inc. (H.O.P.E.), a Tulsa-based HIV/AIDS testing and educational organization. Her answers are summarized below.

Q: Tell me about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma.

The 2013 HIV/AIDS Profile, compiled by the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), indicates that by the end of 2012, an estimated 9,044 cases of HIV/AIDS had been diagnosed in Oklahoma. Over the last 5 years, there has been an overall upward trend in newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in Oklahoma, from 341 in 2008 to 388 in 2012, a 13.8 percent increase. Those aged 13-29 account for 43.3 percent (168) of newly-diagnosed cases. The age group 30-39 years account for 26.3 percent of the cases (102).

Tulsa County experienced the largest percent increase compared to 2011, growing from 97 to 106 cases, reflecting a 9.3 percent increase. Males accounted for 81.7 percent (317) of the newly diagnosed cases and females accounted for 18.3 percent (71) of cases.

Graph courtesy of the Oklahoma State Department of Health
Graph courtesy of the Oklahoma State Department of Health

Q: What factors contribute to this epidemic in Oklahoma?

In a survey conducted in 2011, 8 in 10 Americans said they heard little or nothing about HIV/AIDS in the last year. Public concern about HIV/AIDS has fallen steadily over the years, including among those most heavily affected.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working with individuals and organizations within Oklahoma is the lingering stigma associated with HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis, and STDs. Oklahoma has a reputation of being one of the most conservative states within the United States, and is certainly one of the most unprogressive in the realm of HIV/AIDS prevention and overall sexual health. The values that are expressed by the state government, and held in common with many of the state’s residents reflect the stigma associated with sexually transmitted diseases. Many believe these infections exist primarily within major metropolitan areas and only affect gay men; they deny the sustained epidemic within Oklahoma’s communities.

[pullquote]8 in 10 Americans said they heard little or nothing about HIV/AIDS in the last year.”[/pullquote]The stigma attached with HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, and STDs is widespread, and open dialogues regarding sexual health and prevention are nearly non-existent. Oklahoma’s rural areas are home to numerous high-risk individuals who engage in anonymous sexual relationships, but do not openly identify as being gay or bisexual. These individuals, principally outside of the Tulsa metropolitan area, are particularly at risk for the transmission of HIV/AIDS because they lack the knowledge to make informed decisions regarding their own risk reduction and sexual health.

Most people living with HIV or at risk for HIV do not have access to prevention, care, and treatment. HIV primarily affects those in their most productive years: about 40% of new infections are among those under age 25. HIV not only affects the health of individuals – it impacts households, communities, and development and economic growth.

Q: Are there policies that are not specifically “health” policies that encourage (or discourage) transmission of HIV in Oklahoma?

Lack of sexual health education in the schools encourages the transmission of HIV, HCV, and other STDs. Although HIV education is state-mandated in the 7th or 8th grade and again in the 11th grade, it is based on the theory of abstinence-only and does not allow for in-depth demonstrations or dialogue regarding prevention and overall sexual health.

Q: Tell me about Health Outreach Prevention Education, Inc. (H.O.P.E.).

The mission of H.O.P.E. is to create a healthier community by providing outreach and clinic services focused on HIV, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD), and Hepatitis C (HCV) prevention, education, counseling, testing, and for those who test positive, referral to medical care and social services.

This is H.O.P.E.’s 16th year of providing prevention education, testing, and counseling at its clinic and at a variety of targeted outreach sites focused on men and women from ages 13 – 65+ in the Tulsa Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and 25 surrounding counties.  H.O.P.E. provides linkages to medical treatment and social services. H.O.P.E. also operates the only local and statewide HIV/STD/HCV resource hotlines. Services are provided in English and Spanish, as well as tailored to a variety of client demographics. In 2013, H.O.P.E. provided services to more than 8,500 individuals throughout the state. Over 76.5% of H.O.P.E.’s clients are uninsured/underinsured and/or underserved.

Q: If a genie could grant you one policy wish, what would it be?

That all people would be tested on a yearly basis when they have blood work completed at their primary care physician’s office, and/or admitted to the hospital for any procedure.

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Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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