The annual AIDS Walk/Run takes place at Beaver Lake Nature Center. Shown here at the 2017 event are Moe Harrington, Mae Harrington, Michael Riecke, Will Sudderth, Michael Kyle-Ducharme and Chuck Simpson.
For many nonprofit organizations, longevity is both a blessing and a curse. Over the past 35 years, ACR Health has helped thousands of Central New Yorkers struggling with HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and lack of access to health care. While each person helped is a victory, ACR Health’s work is far from over.
“Unfortunately, there’s been no cure of HIV/AIDS and the fight against the infection continues to rage on,” said Wil Murtaugh, executive director of ACR Health.
In the face of the continuing epidemic of HIV/AIDS and newer public health threats such as hepatitis C and the opioid addiction crisis, ACR Health has grown into a beacon of hope and compassion for the people in its nine-county service area. It has offices in Syracuse, Watertown, Canton and Utica and also has a mobile outreach van that offers testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and refers people to ACR Health’s services.
“We’re pretty diverse in the services we offer, and it really is exciting that we can meet people where they are at and deliver them services as fast as we can,” Murtaugh said.
“I was the 27th person hired here when we were the AIDS Community Task Force and to think now we have over 160 employees is pretty amazing,” he added.
ACR Health’s Q Center offers support services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youths and their families. The agency continues to offer sexual health education and connects people with care management services, transportation and health insurance.
On the substance abuse front, ACR Health manages syringe exchanges for intravenous drug users, offers Narcan (opioid reversal) training and refers people to treatment for their addiction.
“We’re very sensitive to people that feel stigmatized, so we’re the place to come,” Murtaugh said.
The agency now known as ACR Health began as the AIDS Task Force of Central New York in 1983 — two years before President Ronald Reagan even uttered the word “AIDS” in public. That year, an estimated 170,000 Americans were living with HIV, with 64,900 new cases diagnosed.
“When I grew up, I was afraid of HIV. I knew about it. My friends were dying of it,” recalled Murtaugh, who joined the agency in 1993. “People were scared. People were seeking information. People who were HIV-positive were craving medicine.”
Throughout the 1980s, the AIDS Task Force of CNY built up its offerings of support services for people with HIV/AIDS and educational programs in schools and prisons. Murtaugh started the annual AIDS Walk/Run in 1993, and the agency changed its name to AIDS Community Resources the next year.
In 2013, it rebranded once again as ACR Health to reflect the expansion of its services beyond the initial scope of dealing with HIV/AIDS.
The statistics of HIV/AIDS are staggering. According to the World Health Organization, since the beginning of the epidemic, about 76.1 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with HIV and 39 million have died. Today, almost 37 million people are living with HIV.
However, the AIDS epidemic has slowed immensely, especially in New York state. Murtaugh said when he joined ACR Health in 1993, the state saw 14,000 new HIV infections each year. In 2017, just 2,769 cases were diagnosed.
“People forget that New York state was the epicenter of the height of this disease,” Murtaugh said. “It goes down a little bit every year, and that’s exciting.”
In fact, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York is on track to end its epidemic by 2020. That doesn’t mean HIV/AIDS will be eradicated, but it will no longer be considered an epidemic when 750 or fewer new cases of HIV are diagnosed in a year.
Just because the rate of new HIV infections is dwindling doesn’t mean ACR Health’s mission has been accomplished.
“HIV/AIDS is kind of quiet now. It’s not really on the front pages. People think it’s a controllable infectious disease, and it is,” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh said young people “aren’t seeing the same level of concern” about HIV/AIDS these days.
“It’s a chronic disease. You have to take the medicine for the rest of your life, and if you aren’t good at remembering to take pills every day, you won’t survive,” he said. “There’s a lack of urgency around it.”
Murtaugh said there is still a great need for education about HIV/AIDS, especially as methods of treatment and prevention have made great advances. When taken properly, antiretroviral medications can reduce an HIV-positive person’s viral load to zero. Currently, there is an awareness campaign called “U=U,” or “undetectable equals untransmittable.”
While HIV-positive people taking medication are doing their part to eliminate the spread of the disease, at-risk populations — people with more than one sexual partner, IV drug users and those whose partners are HIV-positive — can take action as well. In addition to using condoms to guard against STIs, people who run a higher risk of contracting HIV can take a daily medication called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). A combination of two antiretrovirals, the PrEP medication Truvada can reduce the risk of sexual transmission by 90 percent and the risk of needle transmission by 70 percent. PrEP can also prevent parent-to-child transmission during pregnancy.
“It is about educating people that are positive, but there’s also that second check that people you are sleeping with or having sex with are taking PrEPas well,” Murtaugh said.
The two most recent public health threats go hand in hand, Murtaugh said. The opioid epidemic — primarily intravenous drug use — has laid the foundation for an increase in the rate of hepatitis C infections. ACR Health identified at least 27 new hepatitis C infections in the month of November alone.
“That’s a positive hep C every day,” Murtaugh said. “It’s a whole new generation of 18- to 30-year-olds instead of the baby boomers.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely than other adults to contract hepatitis C because of contaminated blood transfusions and medical instruments. Sharing needles and not properly sterilizing tattooing equipment can lead to the spread of hepatitis C as well.
Fortunately, Murtaugh said, hepatitis C is curable most of the time. Prevention is vital, especially since the disease can be passed to an unborn child. Young children and those who are pregnant cannot tolerate the antiviral medications that treat hepatitis C.
World AIDS Day is Dec. 1, and on Nov. 30, ACR Health held remembrance services in Syracuse, Utica and Jefferson County.
“We always do a service to just remember and observe the day because it’s one of the biggest pandemics to hit mankind,” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh encourages people to get tested for HIV and other STIs.
“That’s my message for World AIDS Day. The first step is knowing your status,” he said. “If you don’t have HIV, ACR Health will help you stay that way.”
In addition to taking responsibility for their health and reducing the spread of HIV, Murtaugh said people can help further ACR Health’s mission through volunteering.
“ACR health was formed by volunteers, so volunteers are vital to our existence here,” he said.
The organization is looking for volunteers for office work, maintaining the monthly newsletter and helping with fundraising and special events. To learn more, visit acrhealth.org/volunteers.
Donations are welcome at any time, but during the holidays, gifts are especially meaningful. ACR Health has a Holiday Angel program in which people can give presents to individuals or families who use ACR Health’s services. Clients provide wish lists of clothing, cooking utensils, toiletries and other items they need. For some clients, gifts from Holiday Angels might be the only holiday presents they receive. Visit acrhealth.org/events/Holiday%20Angel or call 315-475-2430 ext. 702 to be matched with a client in need.
Murtaugh said he cannot thank CNY enough for the support ACR Health has received over the last 35 years.
“Without the community support, we would be half what we are, so we value highly people’s involvement with our services,” he said. “Helping in any way you can will help us. It would mean a lot to the community that we serve and the community that we live in.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.