Boston Health Center Confirms Continued Increase in HIV Cases Among City’s Homeless Drug Users
Whittier Street Health Center’s Mobile Outreach Van Recently Detected Several New HIV-Positive Cases Among Drug Users and Transients Along Melnea Cass Blvd.
A second individual has tested positive for HIV in the past two months in the area between Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, on the border of the city’s Roxbury and South End neighborhoods. The diagnosis was recently discovered by members of the Whittier Street Health Center’s mobile outreach van, who visit the area regularly in an effort to connect unhoused and addicted people with health care services.
The two HIV-positive individuals were given HIV tests in the van and were the first to test positive since the van launched its outreach program in November 2018.
Dr. Cyril Ubiem, director of infectious disease and special populations at Whittier, is concerned the recent HIV-positive results are dire indicators that instead of ending, the HIV crisis among Boston’shomeless and addicted population may just be getting started.
“There’s an urgent need to address the homeless situation in Boston,” said Ubiem. “This is about the opioid crisis and the spread of HIV and STIs.”
Ubiem partly attributes the new HIV cases from a recent mass influx of homeless drug users to Boston.
“They come to Boston for greater access to more drugs, access to homeless services and access to ways to make money for drugs.”
This includes the trading of sex for drugs, an issue especially prevalent for the woman on the street, and a core reason the van hands out so many condoms – especially to females.
Boston, like most cities, had seen a decrease in HIV cases, but since 2015, the number of cases has increased alarmingly. From November 2018 to January 2019, six HIV cases were reported in Boston, up from zero reported for that time frame a year prior.
In January, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Boston Public Health Commission issued an alert to area health care providers to “increase vigilance” and contain the outbreak.
Taking up that mission, Whittier Street Health Center’s mobile health van travels three times a week with a crew of seven outreach workers who engage an average of 40 people per shift.
The van provides on-site HIV testing, as well as HIV prevention counseling, health literature and thousands of condoms.
The van’s outreach program also provides a lifeline for those recently released from prison, suffering from immediate health issues or have lost touch with treatment.
According to Ubiem, many on the street request detox or have lost access and express a desire to return to recovery or mental health care.
The outreach van refers people to Whittier Street Health Center for appointments, sometimes even driving them to the clinic located roughly one mile away on Tremont St.
The mission of Whittier Street Health Center is to provide high-quality, reliable and accessible primary health care and support services for diverse populations to promote wellness and eliminate health and social disparities. The health center also provides community-based cancer care in partnership with Dana Farber Cancer Institute; general dentistry; HIV services; laboratory; obstetrics and gynecology; pediatrics/adolescent health; LGBTQ clinic; eye care; and mental health counseling. Whittier also runs over 40 social service initiatives from a food pantry to a wellness center/gym and addressing everything from substance abuse, violence, trauma, food insecurity and total person holistic wellbeing. Whittier Street Health Center is a 501c3 charitable organization.