Lynda Kettinger: How a public-health leader pushed quietly for change

10/13/2008 12:01 AM

03/14/2015 10:37 AM

When Lynda Kettinger began working quietly and diligently in the field of HIV/AIDS in 1987, the South Carolina health department had logged only 200 cases.

The fledgling program at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had an annual budget of $300,000.

When Kettinger, 53, of Columbia, retired last year as head of DHEC’S STD/HIV division, more than 14,000 South Carolinians were living with HIV/AIDS. The division budget was $50 million.

In the intervening 21 years, Kettinger witnessed the changing demographics of HIV/AIDS and encountered new challenges.

“What we’ve built together is tremendous — services in communities for prevention and care,” she told community leaders and health department staffers just before she left the agency. “I’ve loved my job, every minute of it.”

One of the division’s first tasks: To explain to the public what HIV was, and that it couldn’t be contracted through mosquito bites, in public swimming pools or from a hug with someone infected.

“There was a lot of fear and misinformation” at the time, Kettinger said.

Over the years, state and federal money helped Kettinger’s division establish a reporting system, set up teams of health educators; identify the needs and find services for those with HIV/AIDS; and establish treatment networks.

The money and attention for HIV/AIDS has fluctuated, but Kettinger has remained influential, working with community organizations and with legislators.

“Lynda, within the DHEC bureaucracy ... was a breath of fresh air,” says Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, a legislative champion of HIV/AIDS-related issues. “In many ways, I think her work enabled HIV-prevention efforts in the state to occur.”

She eased tensions between health officials and community groups. She also worked with national public health organizations to help draw attention to the problem in South Carolina and the Southeast.

Today, Kettinger, who now lives in Tennesse, works as a consultant with the agency.

She worries that young people, who don’t see HIV/AIDS as a fatal disease, feel little incentive to be more careful.

She laments that discussing HIV still is taboo, especially in rural areas, and that people with HIV/AIDS are often shunned or marginalized.

And she wonders whether the Internet and the casual relationships it invites will lead to more HIV infections.

Yet after 21 years, she remains positive. “What we have now is a lot more hope,” she said. “And that’s something that wasn’t there when I first started.”

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