HIV in the Ivory Tower

HIV/AIDS is a problem, even at Yale.

Although Chief of Student Health James Perlotto said he was not able to release exact numbers due to privacy and confidentiality policies, he estimated that around 20 undergraduate and graduate students currently enrolled are HIV-positive, and as many as fifty in recent years.

Yale HEALTH currently provides care for students living with HIV which includes medications, Perlotto said. Yale students often study AIDS in a global context, but many undergraduates do not know how close they are to the disease.

“It’s a big myth at Yale that somehow students don’t have HIV,” Perlotto said. “We have always had, and currently do have, students at Yale who are HIV positive, and less commonly some who fit the CDC definition of AIDS.”

While serious sexually transmitted infections like HIV and syphilis are more likely to occur within the older graduate student population, Perlotto said undergraduates also contract these diseases.

Nonetheless, students of both age-groups face unique challenges.

HIV-positive students must find a balance between the demands of their health, schoolwork and emotional stability, Perlotto said.

The biggest challenge facing a student who tests HIV positive is maintaining the daily regimen of drug treatments, all the while knowing that they must do so indefinitely, Medical Director of Yale Health Michael Rigsby said.

“I am constantly amazed by how well our patients do in this regard and that they are able to keep achieving great things at the same time,” Rigsby said, adding that the diagnosis poses significant physical and emotional challenges to the student.

Gregg Gonsalves ’11, a widely-known HIV-positive student currently at Yale, said the endless pill-popping has become a habit. With medications, Gonsalves said he is able to live as just another Yale student.

“I take my pills in the morning, I take my pills at night,” he said. “I know a few people here with diabetes, and they too live their lives as normal Yale students,”

But actually procuring the drugs can prove more difficult, financially speaking, he said.

ON CAMPUS RESOURCES

Yale HEALTH covers treatment for HIV/AIDS as it does for all other treatments and medications, Rigsby said adding that students paying for full Yale Health Plan hospitalization are expected to contribute a percentage of their medication costs.

Perlotto said that in most cases students also financially qualify for the Connecticut AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which covers any necessary HIV medications that cost up to $20,000 a year. Gonsalves himself receives government aid to pay for his treatment.

As well as treatment provisions, Yale HEALTH has resources to ensure the detection and treatment of HIV among students who seek it.

Along with anonymous STI testing, Yale HEALTH offers a separate HIV testing at no charge to all members of Yale HEALTH. The Health Center is also staffed with several physicians experienced in caring for HIV/AIDS patients who can advise concerned students, Michael Rigsby, Medical Director of Yale Health said.

Rarely are Yale Health Plan enrollees referred for treatment beyond the University. But Susan Molde, who is director of patient care services at the HIV/AIDS nursing center Leeway, said a Yale student once stayed at the center for several months.

IGNORANCE AMONG US

HIV/AIDS is often more of a public health concern for most Yalies than an immediate personal risk.

Assistant medical professor Robert Bruce noted that not many students worry about contracting the disease.

“The key thing is that HIV is not something that people really worry about,” Bruce said. “But one third of people with HIV don’t know that they are infected.”

18 to 28 year-olds engage in riskier, more impulsive behavior, Bruce said, cautioning Yale students to engage in safe sex.

A study conducted by the Connecticut Department of Public Health showed that 2 percent of people infected with HIV are between the ages of 13-19, while 12 percent are between the ages of 20-29.

Nick Defiesta contributed reporting.

Correction: December 1, 2010

An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that HIV-positive students on the Yale Health Plan receive full coverage. In fact, they are expected to contribute a percentage of their medication costs. Yale HEALTH also offers free HIV testing to members of Yale HEALTH, not to the entire Yale community as the article stated.

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