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George’s LGBTea: HIV After the Hurricanes


The U.S. has been devastated by multiple hurricanes over the past three months, leaving millions of dollars in damage and relief efforts coming up short in many areas. Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and parts of Texas have yet to recover from this devastation, with an estimation on rebuilding efforts that could take several years to accomplish. Unfortunately, this devastation puts those who need certain medical treatments and medicines for survival most at-risk, especially those who are HIV-positive.

Yesterday, an article was released, entitled, Texans With HIV Cope With Homes And Medicines Ruined By Hurricane Harvey discussing the hurricane’s aftermath for those living with HIV, and their struggle to get back into treatment.

The story talks about a 47-year old woman named Angelia Soloman, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2011. Writer Sarah Varney states:

“The destruction included her HIV medication. When I met Soloman in Houston, it had been a month since she had taken her last HIV pill. There were just too many crises to contend with — dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild her house, finding a car and enrolling her kids in another school district. Many Houstonians with HIV faced similar problems. The hurricane closed pharmacies and clinics for a week — or longer. Floodwaters ruined drugs. People who fled to other states couldn't get their prescriptions filled for HIV medicine. As the days ticked on, many worried the amount of HIV in their blood would increase and become resistant to treatment.”

Treatment resistance is a major issue for those living with HIV. Treatment adherence is key in ensuring that viral suppression occurs, keeping people undetectable and not at risk of transmitting the virus through intercourse or blood-to-blood contact. According to Poz.com, HIV antiretroviral resistance happens when “[s]kipping doses or not taking your medication correctly can cause the amount of an HIV drug to decrease in the bloodstream. If the drug level becomes too low, HIV can reproduce more freely and accumulate additional mutations.”

According to the story:

“There are some 25,000 people with HIV and AIDS living in Houston and Harris County. Dr. Thomas Giordano, medical director at Thomas Street Health Center, a public clinic that offers HIV services, says it will take months to determine — through a series of blood tests — whether his patients' viral loads have been affected by the storm. Giordano says he worries most about his patients who haven't made it back to the clinic. Hurricane Harvey upended so many lives, scattering people to live with friends or family who may not know their status. ‘A lot of people don't want their friends or extended family to know they have HIV, and so they can't get the assistance they might need to get to the pharmacy to get a refill or take their medicines with their meals,’ said Giordano. ‘And so a lot of them stay undercover until things are stabilized again.’"

This problem is not only isolated to Texas, as reports from Puerto Rico speak of an even more dire situation with HIV treatment, especially as FEMA and the U.S. Government have failed in adequate recovery efforts.

As reported by Newsweek, “Carmen Cruz, the mayor of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, said the government is doing everything it can to get medical help to people with HIV/AIDS. She said they ‘stocked up’ medications and other supplies before Hurricane Maria hit, but quickly ran through most of it.” Cruz told the Washington Blade: “We bought a lot of medication which we may or may not be able to get reimbursed for, but who cares, we would not have been able to keep people alive if we had not done that.”

The story goes on to state that “Residents of Puerto Rico have seen their neighborhoods turned into contaminated toxic rivers filled with rainwater and human waste. For some residents, contact with floodwater is unavoidable, putting them at risk for infectious diseases. This may not necessarily cause health hazards for people with healthy immune systems, but for the more than 20,000 people in Puerto Rico with HIV/AIDS, it can be a death sentence.”

People who are HIV-positive are most vulnerable during natural disasters, as the medications that are necessary for treatment and survival become scarce as locations to receive treatment decline due to damages and recovery. As the weeks continue on since these hurricanes, it will be important to continue reporting on the issues being faced by those who are HIV-positive. And as the government continues to grapple with a budget looking to make severe cuts in HIV funding, it will be the job of HIV service organizations to continue to resist at all costs.