Fighting HIV/AIDS at MHHC

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times ran a story about what doctors thought might be a rare form of cancer that had seemingly appeared out of the blue and had already led to 41 diagnoses and eight deaths. As it turns out, that article would be the first time some New Yorkers would learn not about a virulent form of cancer, but a sexually transmitted disease, AIDS. The AIDS epidemic would go on to ravage New York City and the Bronx would emerge as an epicenter.

Chartered the same year the disease began making headlines, MHHC would soon spring into action to help fight the spread of the disease in the Bronx—and even as funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and care has ebbed and flowed, MHHC has never stopped waging the battle.

“The landscape for HIV has changed,” said R. Candace Jones, program director for CARE Services at MHHC. “We have much better technology and better medicine today, but the barriers remain the same with respect to people in our communities. We’re talking about lack of housing, lack of mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Those are still barriers for people who are living with the virus and needing to take care of themselves while having to overcome some of these other issues.”

MHHC has a proud history as it relates to HIV/AIDS. It was one of three community health centers in the late 1980s funded to pilot an integrated HIV service delivery model on which the $180 million federal funding initiative now known as Ryan White Part C is based. Late last year, HRSA awarded MHHC a three-year, $2.1-million Ryan White Part C grant for HIV/AIDS services. And the New York State Department of Health selected CARE Services as one of 13 exemplary programs in the state.

Over the years, treatments have evolved from the original antiviral, known as AZT, developed in the late 1980s, through the onset of antiretroviral therapies in the 1990s to the widespread use, since 2003, of rapid HIV diagnostic test kits that can provide patients results in as little as 20 minutes.

At MHHC, CARE Services, as HIV/AIDS care is known, remains one of the largest externally funded programs, offering a range of medical and support services from antiretroviral therapy and case management to counseling and peer education. MHHC test more than 18,000 patients for HIV annually.

Nationally, AIDS-related deaths peaked in 1995, when some 50,000 people died of AIDS-related causes. The death rate has declined steadily since, but Bronx residents still account for nearly 20 percent of the city’s HIV diagnoses and more than a quarter of its AIDS-related deaths each year.

As rates have declined, the focus at MHHC and elsewhere has turned to prevention as much as treatment. That means that the work at MHHC is arrayed along three fronts: reducing the number of people who are infected but don’t know it, getting people at high risk to start taking a drug that lowers their chances of contracting the virus (known as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis), and getting those who might have been exposed to HIV into treatment within 72 hours to prevent infection (known as PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis).

It’s no easy task. A host of socioeconomic and other factors make it difficult both to reach those who are HIV positive or at high risk and keep them in care. A core element of the CARE team’s effort over the years has been to make HIV testing a routine part of the screening process across all MHHC centers and providers.

“We have to do a better job—and this goes for all healthcare institutions—with screening so that people who are coming through our doors are tested and then retained in care,” Jones said. “We have folks who come to us three of four times a year with STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. If you’re coming to Morris Heights with syphilis that means you are putting yourself at high risk of contracting HIV. We must screen those people and if they’re negative, providers need to have conversations with them about PrEP, for instance. It is super critical—that’s how we’ll stop the spread.”

At MHHC, stopping the spread has long been a priority—one that has made a difference in the lives of Bronx residents.

MHHC Foundation at Work Patricia Lee

Who She Is

Executive Assistant, MHHC WIC (Women, Infant & Children) Program. The WIC program is a state-funded supplementary nutritional program for expectant mothers and children from birth to five years of age.

Time at MHHC

Five years.

What She Does

Patricia helps keep one of the largest funded programs at MHHC running smoothly, with five locations across the Bronx. She works closely with the WIC director to ensure all administrative aspects of the program are intact. She also makes sure that all sites are stocked with supplies and all maintenance work attended quickly. “At times, when needed, I also assist with rostering participants as they arrive for their appointments, as well as distribute checks.”

What’s the best part of working at MHHC?

“I’ve always liked working in a community-based environment where I know the job I’m doing is helping people in need, and MHHC fits right in there. Before coming to Morris Heights, I worked at a substance abuse program that provided services for adults and adolescents—quite a fulfilling experience. Now, I get to be a part of serving pregnant mothers, babies and children and I love it. I love what MHHC stands for. MHHC’s mission, vision, and value statement speaks volumes and fits into what I believe in.”

What’s something people don’t know about you?

“I’m an island girl from Trinidad and Tobago. I love to travel and explore different cultures.”

You volunteer for the MHHC Foundation Gala every year. Why?

“Again, it’s a way of giving back to the community. I enjoy taking part in the preparation leading up to the gala, and for me, it’s also way of getting to know some of our supporters and some of the people we communicate with on a daily basis. At the gala, I work the registration table and it’s wonderful seeing the scholarship recipients and their families arrive and the smiles on their faces. It’s very fulfilling for me and I love giving my time to support the event and the foundation.”

All In on All of Us

The federal Health Services and Resources Administration has awarded MHHC a $455,000 grant to take part in one of the most ambitious medical research studies in history. The funding will allow MHHC to hire staff and launch a campaign to enroll patients and Bronx residents in the All of Us Research Program, spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health. The goal of All of Us is to advance individualized prevention, treatment and care for people of all backgrounds by gathering the largest, most diverse biomedical data resource in history. The study intends to enroll and track the health of a million Americans.

Brighter Smiles in 2019

Delta Dental and its Community Care Foundation has been a strong supporter of MHHC for many years. And in 2019, the dental insurance carrier will be an even bigger supporter. The foundation has awarded MHHC $20,000 for dental supplies in 2019 and half of that money will go to provide dental supplies for MHHC’s new medical mobile vehicle, which will hit the Bronx streets in December.