WNCAP aims to eliminate the spread of HIV

Tracey Childers and Stephanie Almeida came to WCU on Nov. 28 to provide HIV testing and information about the disease. Photo by Brandon Key.

The spread of HIV and AIDS is an international epidemic, with millions of new infections every year. To educate local communities on the disease, symptoms and treatments, organizations, like the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, are committed to helping stop the spread of the disease.

The WNCAP is an independent, non-profit agency governed by a volunteer board of directors. The organization is based out of Asheville and serves 18 counties.

Their mission: “The WNCAP is dedicated to preventing new cases of HIV and AIDS while promoting self-sufficiency in people living with HIV.”

WNCAP provides HIV-related client support, prevention, education and advocacy activities guided by the belief that all people are entitled to equal access to health care and disease prevention.

In its 30th year of operation, the WNCAP has hosted many HIV-prevention events that have helped numerous people, and one of those events, titled “World AIDS Day 2016: The Power of Zero,” was held at the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville on Dec. 1. The event was inspired by the goal of eventually having zero new cases of AIDS in America.

The path to zero new cases of AIDS may be longer than once thought. In recent years, medical and technological advancements, combined with national education initiatives, have greatly reduced the number of new AIDS cases annually. However, the disease is still a prevalent issue.

Over 50,000 new cases occur annually in the United States and one in four of these new cases fall into the age group most susceptible – individuals between the ages of 13 and 29, according to a news release from the WNCAP. Additionally, most new cases of HIV and AIDS are found in the South, with an estimated 22,000 cases just in North Carolina.

“44 percent of all known cases of HIV are here in the South. We only hold 37 percent of the national population and 50 percent of all new diagnoses,” explained Tracy Childers, prevention supervisor for the WNCAP.

Though there is not a concrete reason to why HIV is more prevalent in the South than others parts of the country. There are many theories, two of the major ones being education and access to healthcare. A lot of areas in the South are opposed to sex education other than abstinence-only. There are also fewer people on healthcare in the South than in any other parts of the country.

Childers got involved with the WNCAP because of her mentor she had as a non-traditional student. That mentor ran (and still runs) a food pantry in Asheville called Loving Food Resources that supports people living with HIV and AIDS, and it was at that food pantry where Childers realized her pre-existing thoughts on people living with HIV changed – leading her to want to be a part of the WNCAP.

“When I walked into this food pantry, I realized I had discriminated against individuals, how they would look. You cannot look at someone and think they have HIV,” said Childers. “It’s not just the white gay male disease that a lot of people have stamped in their heads.”

In addition to the health issues caused by HIV, there are several other aspects of life that are impacted by the virus, like finances and relationships, and the WNCAP, as well as support networks like Loving Food Resources, aims to help in those aspects as well.

Though there are thousands of people living with HIV in the South, and even more across the nation, new drugs are being developed every day that help people with HIV live full, long lives. But the most important way of dealing with the virus is to always use protection when having sex.

“No matter what kind of sex you’re having, it’s always important to use protection to prevent the spread of any disease,” said Stephanie Almeida, prevention specialist for far western North Carolina counties.

With their wide support network and commitment to educating communities, the WNCAP has one long-term goal: to stop the spread of the disease in Western North Carolina.