NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) –As New Hanover County continues to be ground zero for the opioid epidemic, a deadly disease looms in the shadows, infecting many unsuspecting people.
“I saw a lot of devastation. I saw people that didn’t do anything but drugs, die in front of me,” Henry Benjamin said.
For years, Benjamin saw a single disease take the lives of those around him.
“It was just like a cancer or something on that order, that everybody shunned away from because they thought it wasn’t in norms,” Benjamin said.
The disease is HIV and Benjamin has lived with it since 1989. He said back then and even today, people believed it was a disease only contracted through sex. But for him and some people in New Hanover County, they got it by shooting up.
“It’s a lot of us out here at this point that are really, really, really, really, really needing it bad, because, like I said, this opioid epidemic is only spreading it even worse,” Benjamin said.
A study by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human services said the rate of HIV in the area has risen in recent years. As of 2016, New Hanover County was in the top 10 North Carolina counties for the number of HIV cases. Sexual transmission remains the number one way to contract the virus. Injection drug use and opioids, however, have played a steady role in the spread.
“We do have probably five to 10 percent of our new diagnoses are from injection drug use and sharing needles. Any kind of substance abuse will also increase the risk of HIV transmission through sexual contact, because if you’re getting high, you’re not always making the best choices about who your partner is and practicing safe sex,” an infectious disease physician at Wilmington Health, Gina Berthold, said.
She also said part of the problem stems from the lack of needle exchange programs throughout the state, until recently.
“Folks were reusing their needles, sharing their needles, getting high with boyfriends, girlfriends, strangers sometimes, and sharing supplies and needles, and all that stuff gets contaminated with blood,” Berthold said. “So if one person has an infection like HIV, now that contaminated blood is on their needle and you’re directly injecting that into your body,”
She said one of the biggest barriers is to get users in for doctors appointments and to take medication regularly.
“So much of their time and energy is spent getting drugs and using drugs,” Berthold said. “So we really need more resources to help people get clean and stay clean so that they can start taking care of their other problems,”
That is why organizations like the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, focus on things like education and outreach. In order to help a group that has not received much help before.
“Past HIV and AIDS prevention methods left a population of people vulnerable. We could provide condoms, we could provide education, but we could not provide safe access to syringes,” N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition outreach specialist, Margaret Bordeaux, said.
Bordeaux states, as times have changed, so have prevention practices.
“Most importantly, we operate a syringe exchange program here in New Hanover County and surrounding counties,” Bordeaux said.
And now, the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition is doing a study with Duke Health Systems to find one thing.
“Tracking for the prevalence of Hep-C and HIV amongst syringe exchange participants and looking to see if PrEP could be introduced into syringe exchange programs,” Bordeaux said.
PrEP is a medication that helps keep HIV from becoming AIDS. All of these efforts are to attack HIV head on and bring down the number no matter what.
“This HIV has always been there and it’s a tragedy not only for the individual. You know what I’m saying? But for our community,” Benjamin said.
President Trump’s budget plan released yesterday includes five billion dollars in new funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to fight the opioid epidemic over the next five years.
Benjamin, Berthold and Bordeaux all said the fight against HIV requires support on all ends from the community to make a change. You can also show your support on March 24 at the HIV & AIDS awareness walk.