The focus of the four-decade battle against HIV has shifted from end-of-life care to finding people who have the disease and getting them treated. And UMass Medical School is a leader in that fight.
The New England AIDS Education and Training Center (NEAETC) is working to reach all primary care physicians in New England’s six states and train them to recognize people at risk of being infected with HIV. NEAETC, which was established at UMass Medical School in 1988, is a program within Commonwealth Medicine’s Center for Health Policy and Research.
Donna Gallagher, PhD, ANP, FAAN, principal investigator and director of NEAETC, said the center trains thousands of health care professionals in the six states every year. The team is working to update health professionals on HIV developments to encourage testing of patients.
NEAETC provides training and education for health professionals that include nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, physician assistants, social workers and dentists through clinical consultation, skills building and ongoing programs.
NEAETC, one of 11 regional centers and four national centers, has received continuous funding since its inception from grants through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources & Services Administration. Gallagher credits the center’s success to the fact that most of the team members are working in clinical settings. About 20 people in Massachusetts and 40 throughout New England who are living with HIV are on the NEAETC faculty.
Gallagher said the U.S. still has 50,000 new cases of HIV every year, which means health professionals haven’t found all those who have the disease and aren’t being treated.
“Before we can say we’re going to have a world without HIV, we need to have a year without new cases,” she said.
New data from the state Department of Public Health shows there has been progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts. Since 2000, the annual number of new HIV infections in Massachusetts has dropped 41 percent and deaths among those with HIV/AIDS has followed a similar course, according to a report released in December. The data also showed that 87 percent of residents living with HIV who are receiving regular care have undetectable levels of the virus.
The goal in the continuing battle against HIV is to find a cure, keep people with HIV healthy and find those who don’t know they’re infected with HIV and are unwittingly transmitting the disease, Gallagher said.
If you can get everyone with HIV treated, she said, the virus will be less capable of being broadly transmitted and doing harm.
“Any disease that is communicable and has no cure is a risk to public health,” Gallagher said.
During the first eight or nine years of the AIDS epidemic, health care workers were focused on end-of-life care. Then “10 years into it, it exploded,” Gallagher said, and there were close to 1 million cases in the U.S., with people infected with AIDS living only about six months. Finding health care providers to work with AIDS patients was difficult.
“They were more afraid of the patients than they were interested in the disease. Then it all changed as the virus stimulated myriad research studies and became a stimulating field of study that crossed several disciplines,” she said.
NEAETC worked to translate what researchers were finding into care. The team tried “to help providers work through the stigma and fear because it was a long time before we knew it wasn’t contagious by touch,” Gallagher said.
Besides Gallagher, the core team of NEAETC comprises one nurse, two nurse practitioners, a minority-focused provider, five co-principal investigators, an evaluation specialist and an administrator.
Gallagher, who is an instructor in UMass Medical School’s Division of Family Practice and in the Graduate School of Nursing, said people are living with HIV longer and healthier. She said, for example, that some patients she first met 35 years ago are still living with HIV.