A Bold New Plan Could Keep More HIV/AIDS Patients in Treatment

Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS is pioneering a new, holistic approach for people who might otherwise drop out of care.

(Photo courtesy of the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS)

Feb 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah B. Weir is a freelance writer, editor, and television producer. She also contributes to the weekly advice column Ask a Mom (Who's Not Your Mom) for HelloGiggles. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and kids.

One of the greatest obstacles to fighting HIV is keeping people in treatment. Although there have been huge advances in HIV medical care and prevention, a recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only four in 10 Americans diagnosed with the virus are being treated for the disease. To help curb this statistic, one organization has developed a model that goes way beyond testing and prescription services—it's creating an entire lifestyle.

Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, a cutting-edge facility in downtown Phoenix, offers clients everything from child care and an on-site pharmacy to counseling and wellness programs—and even perks such as massages and acupuncture. It’s a full range of services aimed at keeping patients on track. “When people are diagnosed, it can be scary and life-changing,” says Ken Gabel, the center’s board chair. “You might get a diagnosis at a testing center, and then you are basically handed a flier.” According to Gabel, without more backup, too many patients fall through the cracks.

There is a big financial incentive as well; most of the center’s services—used by about 30,000 people a year—are provided at no or low cost. “Our clients are primarily people who live under the poverty line,” says Mesha Davis, the organization’s chief development officer. Davis says some clients are unable to work because of their medical condition; others, fearing stigma, may have left their families.

To keep the complex operation running seamlessly, the center relies on public funding as well as private donations. Gabel says one of his passions is being involved with the annual Dining Out For Life event sponsored by Subaru. “We do black-tie events,” he says, “but that’s not our client base.” Dining Out For Life is an opportunity for everyday people, including the center’s clients, to help spread the message and give back by enjoying an affordable meal at a participating restaurant. “Subaru has been a blessing for our organization,” adds Davis, “and helps us promote Dining Out For Life year-round.”

For a way to unplug outside the facility’s walls, the center offers a weeklong overnight summer camp, called Camp Incredible, that’s open to children, teens, and parents affected by HIV/AIDS. The camp combines recreational activities with behavioral health and life skills education in a secure, supportive environment. “My son and I are very grateful for the beautiful vacation,” says Evangelina Lechuga, a center client who is HIV-positive. “Every year, my son counts down the days with excitement when we are getting ready for camp.” Participants get the rare opportunity to talk openly about HIV and feel normal. “For most of these families,” says Davis, “Camp Incredible is their first out-of-town trip together.”

(Photo courtesy Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS)

The Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS was founded as a grassroots organization in 1990 in Phoenix. At the time, there were few treatment facilities in the region, and according to founder Kirk Baxter, many people had to travel to coastal cities for care—if they could afford to. In 1993, the center partnered with the McDowell Healthcare Center, an HIV specialty clinic, to offer additional medical services. Shortly after, the center began conducting clinical trials, and through client volunteers, it has helped get approval for 32 of the 34 medications and devices currently used to treat HIV/AIDS in the country—including a rapid diagnostic HIV in-home test kit.

The center is now the largest research facility in the Southwest, and over the next couple of years, it will be branching out to conduct trials with other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis C, that are common co-infections of HIV. Though it is expanding its research (including the search for a cure), it will continue to provide integrative care—the key to its clients’ health and well-being.

Beyond conducting research and distributing medication, the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS aims to make patients feel more like people. Its holistic, humane approach seeks to support a better quality of life, so patients can stay focused on what's worth fighting for.