South Jersey AIDS Alliance

South Jersey AIDS Alliance HIV and AIDS are an epidemic. Their impact is worldwide and strikes close to home more often than not. One organization is acting locally while thinking globally. The South Jersey AIDS Alliance was founded by a group of concerned citizens in Atlantic City in 1985. Over 15 years later, it stands as Southeastern New Jersey’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization, offering AIDS and HIV support, information and services. Covering Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, the Alliance operates regional support centers to assist clients and their families in the tri-county region. All services are confidential and provided at no cost.

This organization serves around 1800 people living with HIV/AIDS and those at very high risk for HIV/AIDS in New Jersey's three southeastern most counties (Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland) through their support services, care and treatment programs, and Prevention Interventions and curricula each year. The programs they provide include--but are not limited to--case management, early intervention case management, outreach, intensive case management (treatment adherence), transportation, food pantries and nutritional counseling, emergency housing aide, and financial and pharmaceutical assistance, as well as prevention curricula for African American women, people living with HIV/AIDS, men of color who have sex with men, and injecting drug users across three cities. To reach the most people, they currently have seven offices and support or drop-in centers in five cities throughout the region: Atlantic City, Wildwood, Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland. Several of their programs are directed toward incarcerated individuals. To that end, they currently provide outreach, prevention and/or discharge planning services in South Woods, Southern State and Bayside state prisons, as well as the Cumberland and Atlantic County jails.

Everyone should become HIV/AIDS aware. Typically, their awareness programs are tied to specific annual events (e.g., World AIDS Day, National HIV Testing Day, etc.) rather than being delivered as specific campaigns. Their most recent was in collaboration with Bethel Development Corporation and Project Faith in the development of a health fair serving the extreme southern part of the state, which washeld in Millville on June 27--National HIV Testing day. On another front, they will make presentations to various groups as time and manpower allows.

They do offer support groups. This section of the organization is called OASIS and its mission is to provide intensive support services to individuals living with, or at risk for, HIV, through a network of committed individuals working together to encourage and empower those who have a desire to stabilize and improve their lives. These services are provided with respect, compassion, and without prejudice to all who seek them. The goal of the OASIS program is to assist non-adherent, newly-diagnosed, HIV-positive clients and clients who are at high risk of contracting HIV, to take the initial steps necessary towards building healthy habits. This includes--but is not limited to--adhering to appropriate treatment and related issues by supporting and familiarizing them with the system. This goal will be accomplished by using individual level interventions and informational (HE/RR) sessions. Clients will be supported from beginning to end in an effort to develop a more healthy approach to HIV issues. Case managers will offer enablers in an effort to overcome barriers that prohibit them from obtaining appropriate care, as well as a personalized care plan outlining their basic goals. The peer companions will be available to assist clients in getting ready for appointments, escorting them to appointments, and motivating clients in need of additional support to complete their follow-through on designated tasks.

The program's success will be measured on their ability to take previously non-adherent clients and have them both maintain scheduled medical appointments as well as a prescribed medical regime and furnish them with the basic techniques of preventing the transmission of HIV. Once these goals are achieved, clients will either be discharged from the program or referred to a mainstream case manager. For more information, people can contact their OASIS site at (609) 572-1929.

Look out for upcoming fundraisers. Anyone interested should contact their offices at (609) 347-1085.

In doing the research for this article, I asked if there anything that people in South Jersey should know about this organization or AIDS that you think they may not know? Keith Egan, executive director replies in a recent email, “I think that one of the most important things for people in our area to know about us is that we are working very hard not just to provide assistance to people who are living with HIV/AIDS, but to do whatever we can to prevent others from contracting it. It is vitally important for them to understand that the epidemic is not over. Just because there are medications that can enable people who have HIV/AIDS to live longer, more productive lives, does not mean they are cured. People who live with HIV/AIDS are still living with a debilitating disease, one that because of the high costs of treatment can have a devastating effect on their personal resources as well as their health. We are still in this fight but we cannot win it alone. We need the support of the general public to get the job done. They must not allow themselves to become complacent thinking that HIV has been conquered or cured. That simply isn't so.”

People should educate themselves on the facts about HIV and AIDS. HIV is the virus that, along with other factors, leads to AIDS. To become infected with HIV, there must be a direct route into the bloodstream. HIV targets certain white cells which are responsible for "turning on" the immune system. HIV is present in sufficient quantities to infect someone in semen, vaginal fluid, blood and breast milk. The important thing to remember is the virus needs to get directly into the bloodstream to infect a person. It is not transmitted through air, touch, toilet seats, swimming pools or any other casual contact. While some individuals experience mild HIV-related disease (flu-like symptoms) soon after initial infection, nearly all remain well for years. Then, as the virus gradually damages a person's immune system, illnesses of increasing severity develop.

HIV attacks and gradually destroys certain white cells, known as T-cells (CD4 cells), which are responsible for "turning on" the immune system. Over a period of time, the body's defenses become weaker, leaving the person vulnerable to opportunistic infections and other complications.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the combination of HIV plus one or more opportunistic complications and includes changes in certain blood tests. These changes occur due to a weakening of the immune system. A person infected with HIV, and who has declining immune function, can have two or more diseases and/or conditions present at one time. This group of conditions is called a syndrome. At this time the person may be diagnosed with AIDS. Thanks in large part to improved treatment options; the rate of progression to AIDS and the death rate from AIDS-related causes has decreased dramatically in Canada and the United States. Preventative therapy is also available for many of the opportunistic infections that at one time would have been untreatable. The rate of HIV infection, however, is rising with women, youth and injection drug users representing the fastest growing rates of new infections in Canada and worldwide.

There are various ways for the disease to be transmitted, including the following:
1. Sexual Transmission-This includes unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse. Oral sex is considered a low risk activity but since some people have been infected by this route, low risk does not mean no risk.
2. Sharing Needles-Sharing needles for the purpose of injecting drugs, including steroids. This is the most efficient method of infection since the virus is injected directly into the body. Some of the larger urban areas in Canada are experiencing a dramatic increase in the infection rate among injection drug users.
3. Mother to baby-The risk has been dramatically reduced in the last few years due to new therapy for an HIV+ mother. The risk of transmission to the baby has dropped to an 8% chance of having an HIV infected child.
4. Blood and blood products-The blood supply in Canada has been tested for HIV since 1985; however, the blood supply still is not 100% safe. There is still a very small risk of HIV infection from blood transfusion.

The HIV blood test does not look for the virus, but instead is designed to look for antibodies in the virus. It takes 12-14 weeks after infection with HIV for these antibodies to be detectable in a person's blood. This is called the window period. Testing options include the following: Anonymous testing (no identifying information required). Anonymous testing provides pre- and post-test counseling for everyone who receives a test. Confidential testing (requires a name and health card number). This type of testing is most often done at a doctor's office, clinic or hospital. All test results are reported to the Health Department; however, in the case of anonymous testing, the only information reported is the sex of the individual, birth date, risk factors and the result.

"The message of life is not its duration, but its donation." Peter Marshall, former US Senate chaplain.

For more information, contact the South Jersey AIDS Alliance Support Center & Administrative Offices at 19 Gordon's Alley in Atlantic City, NJ 08401. You can reach them by phone at (609) 347-1085. Or, contact them through email at sjaa@yahoo.com. The OASIS Drop In Center is located at 32 South Tennessee Avenue in Atlantic City. You can reach them by phone at (609) 572-1929. Visit them on the web at www.southjerseyaidsalliance.org.

For more on local Organizations, visit our South Jersey Organizations page.

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Author: Margo Harvey

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