Today — Dec. 1 — marks World AIDS Day 2017. It is a day for mourning lives lost to the disease but paradoxically also a celebration of progress made in treating those with HIV/AIDS and in curbing new infections.
In Washington state, the rate of new HIV cases is now at the lowest level since 1984. More people are being tested for HIV, and public health officials here are working to cut the rate of new infections in half during the 2014- 2020 period, says Tamara Jones, who serves as the state Department of Health’s policy and system coordinator for the End AIDS Washington campaign.
The new-infection rate was 6 cases per 100,000 residents in 2016, down from 6.3 in 2014 when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a proclamation setting a goal of half that. Jones and her allies in public health are treating the 2020 goal of 3.2 cases per 100,000 residents as still attainable.
On the down side, as many as 10 percent of the 14,000 Washingtonians living with HIV/AIDS do not know they are infected, according to Jones. State data also show that the number of deaths from AIDS-related causes inched down to 149 in 2015 from a high of 227 a decade before.
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At the same time, significant progress has been made in treatments, meaning that people with HIV/AIDS are living longer and getting care, according to Erick Seelbach, executive director of the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, which provides services in Thurston, Lewis, Mason and Pierce counties.
The foundation marked its 30th anniversary in August and is celebrating that milestone today in Tacoma. There are also gains made by giving preventive treatments for those at higher risk of contracting HIV, including men who have sex with men, Seelbach and Jones note.
In Washington, three of every four new HIV diagnoses are in men who have sex with men. Just 12 percent of new cases are in people who inject drugs. The Department of Health reports that HIV disproportionately hits persons of color, transgender women and those who inject drugs.
That demographic of the HIV population is similar along the West Coast, according to Jones, and also in Thurston County, according to Seelbach. The coastal states have more needle exchange programs and fewer HIV outbreaks like those in other parts of the country connected to opioid use.
But racism, homophobia and stigmas associated with HIV are still barriers to progress in the Northwest, according to Seelbach.
Also, while science now provides retroviral drugs to slow the progression of HIV in a person, and there are pre-exposure prophylactic treatments ( “PrEP“) to help keep at-risk people from getting HIV, there is a shortage of medical providers aware of “PrEP” and who are adept in HIV care, according to Seelbach.
“So what we have in Thurston County is an access question. Where do people go for HIV treatment?’’
That is a good question for our community to keep in mind today — and to answer going forward.