The HIV outbreak in Indiana—fueled by the opioid epidemic—may seem insurmountable, but an Indianapolis-based company says it can be stopped, and it’s helping lead the charge. Leaders at VMS BioMarketing say educating Hoosier doctors about how to fight HIV fits so perfectly in the company’s wheelhouse, it left them asking, “how could we not help?” For the first time in its history, Indianapolis-based VMS BioMarketing is using its expertise—fine-tuned in the private sector—to wage war against a public health crisis.
VMS BioMarketing’s boots on the ground approach is sending 25 specially-trained nurses to meet with doctors and medical professionals throughout Indiana to fill gaps that were exposed when one of the nation’s largest HIV outbreaks swept through Scott County beginning in 2015 and eventually touched every pocket of the state.
“Many doctors may say, ‘I know HIV, I went to med school, I understand this.’ But so many things change,” says VMS BioMarketing Senior Director of Business Development Jessica Reckamp. “The fastest-growing population of HIV patients 20 years ago has now changed. With the opioid epidemic, we’re seeing more and more people are contracting HIV by sharing needles; it’s not just through sexual contact with somebody.”
Traditionally, VMS BioMarketing’s main business focus is providing physician and patient education for pharmaceutical and biotech clients. But the company saw an opportunity to use these skills in an unconventional way when the state began looking for strategies to stop the spread of HIV. Reckamp says rather than selling a product, the 25 nurse educators are going door-to-door providing education.
Called HIV Aware, the summer project aims to send the educators to as many doctors and medical professionals as possible to increase their basic knowledge of HIV and the role of opioids in the infections, raise the comfort level and likelihood of having HIV-screening conversations with high-risk patients and educate them about HIV/AIDS resources around the state.
“There are [medical professionals]…who thought they were confident about HIV going into the program, but realized, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know half of those things,’” says Reckamp. “Treatment programs have changed so much over time. Now there is PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), which is an HIV prevention drug, essentially. Many physicians don’t even realize that’s available. It’s a daily pill that prevents people from getting HIV. Physicians are being introduced to this, and they’re realizing it could really help their patients.”
VMS BioMarketing believes accomplishing HIV Aware’s objectives will, ultimately, increase the number of people with low HIV viral loads (the amount of HIV in the body) and slow the spread of the virus in Indiana. The project is funded until September by a $26 million grant to the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) through the national Ryan White Supplemental Award.
ISDH awarded the funds to Indianapolis-based nonprofit The Damien Center, the state’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization, which selected VMS BioMarketing to partner on the project. Reckamp says HIV Aware has trained more than 1,000 clinics throughout the state so far.
Other than working with Eli Lilly and Company, VMS BioMarketing has done little business in Indiana. HIV Aware marks its biggest project in Indiana to date and the largest number of VMS educators working in the state. Beyond doctors, the educators are also training other frontline medical professionals at college health centers, prisons and school clinics.
“We’re equipping them and bringing [HIV] top of mind,” says Reckamp. “The opioid epidemic is a top news story, but the conversation is about opioid addiction, not how that continues the growth of HIV, because of people sharing needles.”
VMS BioMarketing plans to use the Indiana project as a framework to assist other states in stopping the spread of HIV—but its battleplan is being perfected first for Indiana patients.
“There are still at least 1,000 people in Indiana who are infected with HIV and they don’t know it, so we want to help them get tested and get the support they need to help stop the spread of HIV,” says Reckamp. “This is an epidemic that absolutely is preventable. Through medication and increasing the number of people with viral load suppression, this could be fixed.”
Reckamp says HIV Aware also helps doctors realize the variety of services available for HIV patients.
Reckamp says VMS BioMarketing is “very mission-driven” and jumped at the opportunity to help people “in our backyard.”