ND has low HIV rate, but disparities persist

The 32nd annual observation of World AIDS Day will take place on Dec. 1, 2019. AIDS-related illnesses have claimed an estimated 32 million lives worldwide since the early 1980s, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS.

BISMARCK — Few North Dakotans are diagnosed with HIV compared to other states, and those who contract the virus usually receive effective treatment that prevents further spreading, the state Department of Health says.

Even with the low rate of contraction, the North Dakota Department of Health urges residents of the state to get tested for HIV in observance of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. The annual event, now in its 32nd year, aims to raise awareness for the AIDS pandemic, which has claimed an estimated 32 million lives worldwide since the early 1980s, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS. The virus is most commonly spread through sexual contact or sharing of drug-injecting needles or syringes.

At the end of last year, there were 457 North Dakotans known to be living with HIV or AIDS, the virus’ deadly final progression, according to the department’s latest report on sexually transmitted diseases. About half of those with the virus were diagnosed before arriving in the state, including 22 of the 39 newly diagnosed residents in 2018.

North Dakota had the 15th lowest rate of HIV diagnoses in the country, with just 4.8 new cases per 100,000 residents, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minnesota’s rate was just slightly higher, Wyoming had the lowest rate and Georgia had the highest.

However, significant demographic disparities mean some North Dakotans are more likely to contract the virus than others. Black residents were 13 times more likely to be living with HIV or AIDS compared to all residents, according to the department’s 2018 report. Additionally, more than two-thirds of those diagnosed in the state were men.

Similar trends exist on a national level. Sexually active gay black men are at a much higher risk of contracting the virus than the rest of the population according to the CDC.

Shari Renton, the coordinator for the state’s STD surveillance program, said the key to addressing the disparities and keeping the rate of diagnoses low is convincing residents to get tested for the virus.

“There are so many tools now to prevent and treat HIV. However, there remains to be stigma and misconceptions around HIV and testing, and we want to break that down,” Renton said. “A priority for us is that individuals do get tested because all of this means nothing if someone does not know that they are infected with HIV.”

If diagnosed and treated quickly, HIV patients can achieve “viral suppression,” which means laboratory tests cannot detect the virus in their blood and the chance of transmitting the virus drops to virtually zero. Renton said 83% of North Dakotans with HIV have reached viral suppression, a 12% increase since 2016. She called the upward trend in fast, effective treatment “very encouraging.”

The department offers free HIV and Hepatitis C testing to residents at 33 sites throughout the state, including five each in Fargo and Grand Forks, two in Jamestown and one in Dickinson. To learn more, go to www.ndhealth.gov/hiv.

Contact Jeremy Turley at jturley@forumcomm.com or on Twitter at @jeremyjturley

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