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ACR Health ramps up HIV testing as state pursues 2020 goal

Ellen Abbott
Denise Smith of Fulton says her son, who died last year, was never tested for AIDS because of the stigma around the disease. HIV testing is part of a multi-pronged attack meant to end the AIDS epidemic in the next three years.

It’s been two years since the state announced a goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2020. Achieving that goal is on the horizon, according to one local health agency.

Will Murtaugh of ACR Health says at the height of the epidemic in 1993, there were more than 14,000 new HIV infections every year across the state. That number is now down to 3,100, inching ever closer to the state's 2020 goal. 

"To end the epidemic and declare it a success, the governor would like under 750 statewide infections," Murtaugh said. "That puts it equal to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. We got it down. If we get it down, it's a very controllable infection.”

Murtaugh says ACR Health, which covers nine central and northern New York counties, has expanded HIV testing services in order to try and get the number of new cases down. At last count, the agency was testing almost 1,000 individuals a year.

HIV testing is one of the strategies meant to reduce the numbers of new AIDS diagnoses, but because the disease still carries a stigma in this society, some people choose not to get tested. That’s what happened to Denise Smith’s son Ronnie who never got tested until it was too late.

"December 5th, 2016, I laid in bed with my son, singing in his ear, to comfort him while he was dying," Smith said. "He will be forever 32.”

Smith says even while Ronnie was fighting the disease, it was something he kept quiet because of the stigma.

"People are looking at people with AIDS and HIV and are assuming things they shouldn’t be," Smith said. "These are people that are loved, and these are people who have family, and they have to hide their disease so they’re not ridiculed."

But now, she hopes that getting the message out about the importance of testing can save lives in Ronnie’s name.

Murtaugh says there are more avenues than ever for testing in central and northern New York.

"We used to have five programs that target. We now have eight that do targeted testing to try to identify those individuals," Murtaugh said. "Some of our programs are coming with more marketing dollars so we can use social media and get it out there to different groups and say, ‘Listen, get tested, know your status,  Come to us for a free test.'"

Since 2012 the number of people tested by the nine-county agency has jumped from 151 a year to 974 a year.