28 counties in West Virginia are at risk for a potential HIV outbreak, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the vulnerable communities are rural areas in southern West Virginia. Recently, more than $1 million in federal funding has been awarded to a West Virginia University project aimed at preventing an HIV outbreak in southern West Virginia.
So why is West Virginia at risk? The high rates of drug use, combined with poor access to health care, make these communities especially vulnerable to an outbreak of HIV, says Dr. Judith Feinberg, of the WVU School of Medicine.
“My professional and personal concern is that it will look something like AIDS in the 1980s, without a real effort to look for cases, diagnose them, and get them into treatment.”
Feinberg is one of the leaders of the new project, which received a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The project will target eight West Virginia counties: Boone, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Raleigh and Wyoming. Six of the eight are among the top 25 counties in the U.S. in their per capita overdose fatality rates, according to the CDC.
Feinberg says the university plans to partner with local health departments and community non-profits. They hope to expand needle exchange programs and HIV testing into southern communities.
“We are sitting here, really, in the belly of the beast," Feinberg said. "We are sitting in an area that could be a tremendous hotspot for outbreaks of HIV and spread of HIV, and we desperately do not want this to happen."
She said it's unknown if high numbers of HIV-positive people exist in southern West Virginia because testing rates are so low, especially among people who inject drugs. She says if cases don't already exist, it's just plain luck. Her goal is to prevent an outbreak, if one hasn't already taken root.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that this WVU project plans to possibly distribute an HIV vaccine to at-risk populations. This is not correct and we regret the error.