The good news is that people with HIV are living longer, but the bad news is that infection is on the rise.
This summer marks 30 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States. While some progress has been made in treating the disease, and those infected are living longer than ever, there is no cure, and infections continue to rise in Minnesota and across the country.
By 2007, more than 576,000 people with AIDS had died in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The death toll continues to rise, as the CDC estimates that more than 18,000 people with AIDS die each year nationwide.
The first cases of AIDS in the United States were reported to the CDC on June 5, 1981. Initially, the mysterious disease was thought to be a form of pneumonia. The CDC determined it was a “cellular-immune dysfunction related to a common exposure” and a “disease acquired through sexual contact,” later called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), according to a 2001 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Misinformation and stigma continue to surround the virus, which can leave those living with it feeling marginalized.
Some are rejected by their peers or families, according to Joe Larson, Executive Director of the The Aliveness Project.
“It’s still an isolating disease,” Larson said. “[Those infected] don’t tell people. They get depressed. We hear from lots of our members that Aliveness is a place where there is family.”
The Aliveness Project, which began in 1985, reaches out to those living with HIV/AIDS. It provides resources such as a food shelf, treatment to help alleviate symptoms, health and wellness programs, and a community of people who understand what they are going through.
“Know you are not alone,” Larson said, explaining that the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS frequently prevents those living with the virus from seeking help. They are often afraid that others will subject them to judgment and ridicule. “That’s a big part of the stigma and the shame, ” Larson added.
There has been an increase in older people living with HIV, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). Larson said this means people with the virus are now able to lead fuller lives.
“We’ve shifted from the crisis mode I remember in the ’80s,” Larson recounted. “People are living longer, but I think we still need to show support and do prevention in our community.”
Larson cited MDH statistics that show HIV infections are on the rise, with 331 new cases in Minnesota last year. More than 50 percent of those newly infected are identified as men who have sex with men, which is consistent with the national pattern.
The prevalence of sexually transmitted infections is also increasing, which Larson said means people aren’t using proper prevention methods.
“Reduce the risk of getting infected,” Larson stated. “We need to keep [prevention] in the forefront.”
Getting tested for HIV and making efforts to stop the spread of the infection are more important than ever.
The CDC estimates that more than one million people are living with HIV nationwide. About one in five of those individuals living with HIV is unaware of being infected, which means they can unwittingly spread it.