University working to reestablish free HIV testing for students, expand resources

Posted on Mar 2 2017 - 8:01am by Jennifer Froning

The Center for Disease Control reports that people living in Southern U.S. account for nearly half of all people living with an HIV diagnosis in the country, at 44 percent. As a state, Mississippi is ranked ninth in the nation for the lifetime risk of HIV diagnosis, with 20.6 people diagnosed per 100,000 residents. Lafayette County reported seven cases of HIV in 2015.

To combat the virus on campus, the Ole Miss Health Center conducts HIV testing in house. Dr. Travis Yates, director of the health center, said the center conducts these tests every day.  

“We have some students who come specifically for HIV testing, and some come frequently for STD testing,” Yates said. “We will often include HIV in that if they elect to have that done.”

Nationally, HIV spreads fastest among gay and bisexual men, younger demographics and African Americans. In 2015, 16.8 people per 100,000 residents of Southern states were living with an HIV diagnosis. This rate was 11.6 per 100,000 in the Northeast, 9.8 per 100,000 in the West and 7.6 per 100,000 in the Midwest.

At Ole Miss, students have to pay for the HIV test if they want to have it done on campus, but Yates said he is trying to get free HIV testing reestablished for students. The school is seeking a grant from the State Board of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help provide free HIV testing for students. Yates said this may bring more HIV-positive students to the health center.

“We see our students here at the Student Health Center, but that in no ways means that we see every student with HIV,” Yates said. “There may be plenty of students with HIV that I have no knowledge of.”

All the nurses at the health center on campus are already certified to administer an HIV test, but in order for Ole Miss to get this grant, the nurses have to go through a special training program. Training includes five hours of online practice and a daylong in-person training session.

Two nurses at the health center are currently signed up to go through the training so Ole Miss will qualify for the grant. When the staff is accredited with the training certification, the program for free HIV testing on campus will be reestablished.

Currently, if a student turns out to be positive for HIV, the health center will refer that person immediately to an infectious disease specialist. The nearest infectious disease specialist is in Tupelo.

Yates said the health center will still treat the student for common ailments such as a cough, the common cold or the flu, but the center requires the student to be monitored by an HIV specialist. 

HIV rates have stayed about the same in the last few years at Ole Miss. Ole Miss does not have a high incidence of HIV in the student population, but that does not include all of Oxford or Lafayette County.

If a student is HIV positive, that person does not have to register with the health center on campus, but Yates said he or she does have an ethical obligation to tell his or her partner because it is life-threatening.

“They may have been diagnosed elsewhere or getting their care elsewhere,” Yates said. “The number of students that I do or do not see may not be reflective of our overall numbers.”

In 2015, the state saw 509 diagnosed cases of HIV, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

Women accounted for 110 of those cases of HIV, and African-American women reported the highest number of cases with 86. White women reported 16 cases, and Hispanic women accounted for four cases.

There were a total of 399 cases of Mississippi men living with HIV in 2015. African-American men accounted for 323 cases, and white men reported 59 cases. Hispanic men saw 10 cases, and the last seven cases were from other ethnicities.

The CDC funds the Mississippi State Department of Health to implement a high-impact approach to HIV prevention. In 2014, $6,926,595 was given to Mississippi for HIV/AIDS program initiatives. Yates said these initiatives are a worthwhile cause.

“The only thing we can do is educate people,” Yates said. “We can educate people, explain the risks and educate people about safe sex practices.”