For the first time in almost two decades, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation will no longer offer HIV/AIDS prevention programs to men with same-sex partners, the group that accounts for the largest number of new HIV infections here every year.
Three programs the foundation provides that educate men on HIV risks, give tips for reducing the risk of infection and offer counseling will end today.
The end of the programs was prompted by a nationwide shift by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to focus on people who are HIV-positive and live in major metropolitan areas rather than men who are most at risk.
For Arizona, that means more CDC funding for Maricopa County, which accounts for 69 percent of the state’s HIV/AIDS cases compared to 13 percent in Pima County. It also means successful programs focused on keeping people from contracting HIV are giving way to those that help people who already are infected.
In 2010, there were 94 new cases of HIV/AIDS reported in Pima County.
“It’s certainly very disappointing. The concern in cutting prevention is that information doesn’t get out there to those at risk and the numbers rise,” said Dr. Michelle McDonald, head of the Pima County Health Department. “There is a long-term impact, and you can’t measure how many people will be swayed to be prevented if they had had those tools. If the money shrinks, the amount of outreach shrinks.”
In Pima County and across the United States, men who have sex with men account for the largest number of new HIV infections every year. Some 17,000 people in Pima County are estimated to have been served annually by the Aids foundation programs that are being cut, said Ethan Smith Cox, the foundation’s director of development.
Arizona received about $4.2 million in total funding from the CDC for HIV/ AIDS-related services, like prevention programs surveillance and HIV testing in high-risk groups, the federal agency said.
“There is a sense of bewilderment,” said Jim O’Rourke, who is active in Tucson’s gay community. “It doesn’t make sense that this prevention program that did so well in the community is going to have its funding completely pulled. It’s a slight slap in the face to SAAF. It kind of hurts,” he said.
“This is really devastating and completely shocking,” said Luis Ortega, the group’s director of prevention programming.
Ortega noted that the CDC priority shift left the foundation without a backup plan when funding was eliminated rather than reduced. The shift could seriously jeopardize the health of the entire community, the foundation said in a news release.
“It’s a fascinating approach by the CDC to shift its attention to Maricopa County and people who are HIV positive,” said O’Rourke. “It’s a new approach, but it makes me nervous down here in Pima (County) with the cut in prevention services, that the number of positive people will go up with no prevention services,”
A combination of health groups and those that serve the gay community are working to find a way to keep providing services like those being cut.
The AIDS group has also applied for grants and funding from private and public foundation sources, Ortega said. Pima County still offers numerous resources, and the AIDS group will continue its HIV testing and community outreach, he said.
“We are putting the responsibility of HIV prevention on the people who are already positive and already have the medical burden of it,” said Ortega. “It concerns me because it’s all a matter of personal responsibility and putting reinforcement on responsible and safe choices. The goal is to keep everyone HIV-negative, and I hope this message doesn’t get lost because of this change.”