Q&A with Kern Public Health: Understanding HIV Testing, Treatment, and Prevention 

April 8, 2024 /

In a 2022 most recent study, Kern County Public Health detected 200 positive new cases of HIV in Kern County. Highest increase in HIV in 20 years. Between the tides of stigma to advancements in treatment of HIV, Patrick Salazar (HIV Program Coordinator for Kern County Public Health) spoke to South Kern News to go into depth about HIV-related issues. 

How often should people get tested for HIV? What are the symptoms they should look out for?

Salazar: The CDC recommends that people get tested at least once in their lifetime, but if folks are more sexually active, they should probably be getting tested at least once a year. But then I would even go further to say, if they’re engaging in maybe some more high-risk behaviors, then maybe they should maybe consider at least getting tested once every six months. It depends on the person’s risk. That’s going to dictate that. That’s typically how often people should be screened. When I said that people should at least get screened once in their lifetime, what the CDC recommends is anybody that’s between the ages of 13-64. 

In regards to your question about symptoms, that varies because what happens sometimes people don’t even have symptoms. Which is scary, right? That’s not uncommon because that does happen with other STIs like syphilis and chlamydia. When we talk about symptoms, people can experience things like fevers, body aches, and things like that. But that can also mimic things like the flu, COVID-19, and other infections. So the only real way to know is by getting tested to know for sure.  

What are some stigmas of HIV that you’ll like to clear the air on? 

Salazar: The stigma is that it only happens to one certain group of people. It doesn’t. It can affect anybody. That’s one stigma that is attached to it because there’s this mindset that has normalized it. I think another stigma that is attached to it is that the language that’s being used. You’re considered ‘dirty’ if you have HIV. Some of that terminology is out there about someone clean or dirty because they have an STI or they have HIV.

We try to get away from using those terms because again, they’re stigmatizing. We’re trying to normalize [to talk about] these things and if people are using terms like that, it just doesn’t help. It makes people who have HIV feel like people don’t want to be around them or they don’t want to associate with them because they’re seen as someone dirty. And that’s not the case. Those are just some of the stigmas that we see that we try to clear up because we want people to feel like it’s possible to live a normal life. Just because you have HIV does not mean you cannot live a normal life. The way that we try to talk to people is like hey, you have a chronic disease just like diabetes Cholesterol and those are things that you’re gonna probably have to take medications for to manage it. So HIV is no different.

What is the technology and treatment for HIV today compared to how it used to be?

Salazar: There’s been a lot of advancements over the years, over the decades, in screening and treatment. People used to have to take what’s called the cocktail of medications and folks were taking upwards of anywhere between 15 to 20 pills. That’s not the case [anymore] and there are treatments now where a person only has to maybe take one pill per day. That’s an awesome advancement in treatment. There’s also now the newly released injection. It’s called Cabenuva. It’s a bimonthly injection that somebody receives. If someone is eligible to receive the injectable they don’t have to worry about taking medication every day. They just have to make sure they go to their provider and get that injection. It takes a lot of the pressure off and makes it easier for people to manage their HIV.

In regards to the screenings, there’s been a lot of testing technologies over the years that have gotten better at detecting HIV.  Now there are tests out there that can test for antigens in someone’s body. Whenever a foreign virus or bacteria gets introduced into our body, our body creates antibodies and antigens to try to respond to an attack of the virus.  That’s what our body responds to. So there are testing technologies out there now that can pick up the virus sooner. That’s good because we talk about early detection as part of our messaging. The more people stay on top of being tested the tensing technologies will be able to pick up the virus sooner. 

Is there a pill that prevents HIV and how does it work? Is it only for men? Do people need a prescription?

Salazar: I’m glad you asked that. What you’re talking about is PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). It’s a pill that someone can take every day to keep them from contracting the virus. There are different types of PrEP out there, so it is great to have options. It’s not just for males, it’s for anybody. Again, as I was saying in the beginning anybody can have a risk. Whatever that puts them at a higher risk for contracting HIV then it’s something that they should highly consider.

The wonderful thing about PrEP is the treatment that someone can take to prevent them from contracting HIV has just widened up so much more. However, some people are not eligible for certain medications over others. For example, Truvada [and Descovy] are medications that are also used in HIV treatment, but cisgender women are not recommended that they take Descovy. The studies show that the uptake efficacy of the medication was not good in cisgender women. So it’s recommended that cisgender women take Truvada [instead]. There are just some differences and providers will be able to let [people] know if you’re eligible and need to take this particular medication. It’s just an awesome way for people to know as part of that HIV prevention toolbox. 

What are the rates of HIV in Kern County? Has it risen in recent years?

Salazar: Unfortunately, our rates have risen over the past few years. Back in 2022, our most recent data, we had 200 new cases of HIV that were diagnosed. That’s the most that we’ve ever had even since the early years of the epidemic. But the caveat to that is we’ve had so much population growth in Kern County since then. But at the end of the day, 200 is too much.

That’s why we stress the importance of making sure you’re testing and you’re also taking any of the preventative methods. So I’m glad that we’re talking about PrEP because that’s one of the methods that’s most effective [at] preventing HIV. 

For information on PrEP and HIV testing visit the Kern Public Health website. 

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Haley Duval

Haley is a reporter for Kern Sol News since December of 2023. She was born and raised in East Bakersfield and went to Foothill High School. Haley has AA in Journalism from Bakersfield College. When Haley is not reporting, she enjoys writing poetry, reading, traveling and spending time with friends and family. She can be reach at haley@southkernsol.org.