The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Med school volunteers test for HIV

Each week, a team of volunteer Drexel medical and health profession students files out of a large van onto a street corner in Southwest Philadelphia and joins Dr. Stacey Trooskin, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine. This street team offers free HIV and hepatitis C testing in Philadelphia’s most at-risk ZIP code. The initiative is focused on encouraging those with limited medical resources to join the Do One Thing campaign and choose to receive free testing.

In collaboration with Amy Nun of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, Trooskin and the Drexel College of Medicine’s Office of Community Experience have trained over 100 students to work in the community since the inception of the Do One Thing program in 2012. The model was taken from Trooskin’s organization, Penn Presbyterian Outreach — now called Philadelphia Outreach Workers — which trained 40 University of Pennsylvania medical students to become HIV testing certified.

Hepatitis C is a disease that often goes untreated in large urban communities due to a lack of awareness and proper medical resources for diagnosis and treatment. With the mobile testing van serving as a clinic, the campaign and the College of Medicine and other health profession students are able to create a sustainable resource for access to education.

In understanding the discourse of HIV and HVC, the concept of geography plays a major role in determining infection rates and way of treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HVC is most commonly transmitted through contaminated blood. In urban communities with high infection rates among nonwhite residents ages 18-30, needle sharing is often to blame.

The viral infection attacks the liver and leads to inflammation, preventing normal function without symptoms. For individuals who test positive, the campaign aims to provide confirmatory RNA testing by a trained phlebotomist in the mobile testing van to then direct the chronically infected into proper medical care.

As Drexel endeavors to fulfill President John A. Fry’s initiative to become the most civically engaged university in the nation, the students of Drexel are drawn to Philadelphia, where their commitment is needed most.

“Volunteers bring a certain amount of energy, excitement and fresh spirit to community,” Trooskin said, “and their intention is purely received by the community and is appreciated. They have taken our campaign to the next level for why it has been so welcomed.”

When volunteers began the canvassing, the biggest concern expressed to Trooskin was how the community will accept or reject the opportunity to engage in a conversation about HIV and HVC. The worries of rejection, bitter conversation, and the dangers of Southwest Philadelphia do not leave room for high hopes and expectations. However, these initial reactions do not reflect the end results.

“Universally, what I’ve heard from them is that it they are impressed at how kind and grateful people are, that they are trying to do something that improves the community’s health,” Trooskin said.

Martinique Akinfosile, a master’s student in health management and policy, worked with Trooskin and the campaign this past summer. The experience has led to many paradigm-shifting realizations, especially because she is new to the Philadelphia community. Do One Thing, Change Everything has allowed her to feel connected through open dialogue with community members and story sharing and has inspired her to continue working in Philadelphia.

“I feel that the campaign is very innovative and a great example of meeting the community where they are,” Akinfosile said. “There are plenty of programs that provide free HIV testing, but what makes the Do One Thing campaign so different is that they come to your community. They basically take away your excuse that you can’t get to a testing site or don’t have time; the testing site is a few blocks away from your house now and only takes 20 minutes.”

As more students join the program to either fulfill academic requirements as community experience credit in the College of Medicine or just volunteer, every day presents a new opportunity to learn about infectious disease.

“I also like that the campaign also tests for HCV,” Akinfosile said. “Before this internship, I didn’t really know what HCV was, the high prevalence of HCV in Philly or the available treatments, and this campaign is working to educate the community about this when nobody else is.”

Akinfosile has been able to draw upon her experience to better understand which path to follow in public health. Her work in the Philadelphia community has led her to do more with community outreach as a public health professional, specifically in regard to HIV and AIDS in the African-American community.

The success of Do One Thing is widespread. Since the initiative began in December 2012, over 780 at-risk individuals have been tested, in which 31 had a reactive HCV antibody test. Of those who tested positive, 25 have had ongoing contact with Trooskin or an affiliated social worker to receive patient care and obtain insurance. Another four have recovered on their own, and the remaining two have been treated by another clinic.

Trooskin wants to reassure those interested in volunteering that all undergraduates are welcome, regardless of major. For those interested, the only requirement is to be consistent in volunteering once per week, or at a minimum, every other week.