On February 3rd, the City of Austin Health and Human Services Department released a report showing a 40% increase in HIV cases in Austin/Travis County. Several media outlets ran stories about the increase and the possible reasons why there was a significant increase. As with any media interview, critical information sometimes gets left on the cutting room floor due to editing, time constraints, and last minute changes before airing.
THE WHY: As to the “why” we are seeing an increase in the Austin/Travis County area, there are many factors influencing an increase in HIV cases:
- First of all, Austin has seen a significant increase in its population since 2006, with over 100,000 new residents coming into the area from parts of Texas and from other states. The increase in HIV rates is significantly lower than the population increase.
- Austin is a great city, which is why we are seeing an increase in population. Also, Austin is known as an LGBT friendly city. As a destination city and a large university center, we would expect to see an increase of people that are at-risk for HIV.
- We know that the focus on HIV through media and public service campaigns has lessened as new medications help people live with HIV. This has resulted in misconceptions that treating HIV is as simple as taking a pill. For a younger generation that did not see their friends and family members die daily, they may not understand the complexity and difficulties with managing a chronic, and yet potentially fatal, disease.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: We are seeing increases in HIV cases because we are doing a great job getting people tested. HIV testing now has to be covered under insurance plans and in many clinics, HIV testing is a part of a regular set of blood tests. Organizations like ASA are successful in finding the most at-risk persons for HIV.
ASA’s testing yields an HIV positive rate more than twice the national average, and in some of our very targeted programs, the positivity rate is three times the national average.
Nationally, HIV prevention programs have reduced the number of people who don’t know that they are positive from 25% to 15% in the last 5-7 years.
WHAT NEXT: HIV prevention strategies continuously evolve to identify HIV positive persons and link them into medical care. Additionally, we now know through recent successes that HIV medications can also work as preventative strategies for HIV negative persons. PreP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) is now covered by many health insurance plans. Taking PreP (Truvada is the medication) can reduce the risk by 70% of an HIV-negative person contracting from an HIV-positive person. But that assumes that the HIV negative person takes the medication exactly as it is prescribed and also practices other safer sex behaviors. Otherwise, protection drops to 40%.
We think it is critically important for a person who is HIV-negative to talk to their doctor or family about this prevention strategy to see if it is the best option for them.
Another Key Prevention Strategy that ASA has is to work intensely with HIV-positive persons: link them into medical care, help them get on HIV medications, and reduce their viral load. We know that this is probably the most important strategy to reducing HIV infections. If someone stays on their medication and reduces their HIV viral load (meaning they get the amount of HIV virus down to undetectable levels), we know that the risk of transmitting HIV drops by over 95%. This strategy is in line with the National HIV Strategy launched in 2011.
Look for more information about prevention work in future postings.