The Intersections

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  BREAKING NEWS 

   HIV/AIDS CASES ON THE RISE IN WILL COUNTY
        AS ILLINOIS PROMOTES A GET-TO-ZERO CAMPAIGN, A LOCAL                           ORGANIZATION IS WORKING WITH A GROWING POPULATION.
                                                   
  By Gretchen Rachel Hammond
​ 

 Jill A. Skole (left) holds up a banner alongside a volunteer wearing a red T-shirt (right) at an Agape Missions event. They are both standing behind a table with Agape Missions leaflets and brochures on a red tablecloth.  Photo courtesy of Agape Missions 
For the over a quarter century since it was founded by a group of parents, nuns and parishioners, Agape Missions has taken the lead in area HIV/AIDS care, prevention and general counseling. Serving over 140 people each year, the organization is the only agency in Will County which provides medical case management for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Its ceaseless work for a population which still faces monumental challenges was made fundamentally clear on Dec 1 when Agape marked World AIDS Day with an open house at its Joliet headquarters.

Themed Increasing Impact through Transparency, Accountability and Partnerships, the sixth annual event was designed to raise “awareness and [bring]  professionals together to improve the lives of individuals living with HIV/AIDS.” The event included free testing, displayed banners of people lost to HIV/AIDS alongside a bracelet and red ribbon giveaway.

Jill. A. Skole has been Agape’s Executive Director and Fiscal Manager since 1994. For her, World AIDS Day and Agape’s open house centered around a single but vital word: Education.

“People act like there’s nothing to AIDS and that it’s long gone,” she said. “No it’s not.”

However, the landscape around HIV/AIDS has changed and Agape Missions has adapted to it with staff now fulfilling multiple roles.

“We were always a social service, case management, housing and HIV testing agency,” she said. “We realized that we had to be aware of changes that were happening with medications and things like that. We looked at many of the people in our housing program and almost every single person had a background issue with prison. So, we got involved with re-entry programming. We’re up to about 12 prisons that we go to yearly.”
Among those changes has been the innovation of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) —a prevention medication which the State of Illinois has backed as part of a comprehensive awareness campaign.

Called Getting to Zero, the campaign is designed to build on a nearly 30 percent drop in new HIV cases over a nine-year period in order to totally eliminate HIV/AIDs in Illinois.

“I give Illinois a lot of credit,” Agape Corrections Medical Case Manager and Supervisor Sandra Wetstein asserted. “They’ve really pushed prevention and even linkage to care for people who are positive. They have a lot of told that they are utilizing. A lot of the people who come through our doors are knowledgeable. People who are getting tested are asking about (PrEP) but we have to remember that it doesn’t prevent other STDs which, in Chicago, are among the highest ever recorded.”

However, Skole noted that the rise of PrEP and anti-viral medications has been a double-edged sword sharpened by drug manufacturer marketing.

“There’s a lot of advertisements which says “You can live now’,” she said. “When you read them, they are kind of scary. [People] think that, by taking a magic pill, they don’t have to worry about anything else. They have Meth parties and sex with multiple partners. These advertisements empower them.”

In North Central Illinois and Will County, the numbers of people infected with HIV/AIDS are rising in both men and women.
“Especially in this area, there’s a huge rise in Heroin and other drug use,” Wetstein said. “It’s out of control.”

State programs that could help alleviate the HIV/AIDS risk with drug use are virtually non-existent.

“There was a woman who ran a needle exchange program,” Skole asserted. “She said it did help. After the State went belly-up, it ended. In Illinois there has never been an agency who know what they were doing with needle exchange. So, it is always taken away. I just saw a grant not too long ago for some communities but it was for a very small amount.”

The drug epidemic has also led to an increase in the prison population. According to Wetstein, transmission rates within correctional facilities are hard to determine owing to a reluctance by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) to share information.  

“They keep it very hush-hush,” she said. “It’s very hard to find true research because they don’t want to deal with it, think about it or research it. Do we know it happens? Yes. Have I had clients tell me that it happens? We can’t do much about that. The Department of Corrections run the way they run.”

“They used to test do HIV tests for [people] going into and coming out of prison,” Skole added. “Now they just do it while they’re exiting and people can opt out.”

“It goes back to the importance of knowing your status and we do push that when we go into prisons and speak to people,” Wetstein said. “We can’t do anything on a policy level but we can definitely educate these men and women to know their status when they get out.”
There seems to be a similar silence in Will County in terms of people who are LGBT.

Skole asserted that a recent attempt to form an area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce failed
.
“It was very sad,” she recalled. “They all said ‘No. We just want to be left alone. We don’t want our store targeted. People still hate people who are gay.’ I was taken aback.”