You wouldn’t think that a 13% increase in the numbers of Minnesotans diagnosed with HIV from 2008 to 2009 would be good news, right? But it is, because the alternative was a 25% increase the Minnesota Department of HIV had predicted based on the numbers of new cases between January and September of last year. According to Peter Carr, the head of the HIV and STI section at MDH, increases in cases in October, November, and December “bottomed out,” for a year-end total of 368 new cases, 203 were gay and bi men, and 73 were women (MDH doesn’t record the sexual preferences of women who contract HIV because risk of transmission during sex between two women is extremely low).
What that number of new cases does not include, however, are HIV-positive Minnesotans who have not been tested for HIV.
“The only way to know that is to routinely do a ‘population base study’ where you routinely grabbed 2000 people out of population [such as gay and bi men], and give everyone an HIV test” Carr told me in an interview today. “You look at who’s positive, and who knows their status. The problem is that’s really expensive.”
Carr said that, on a national level, it’s estimated that 21% of all HIV-positive Americans do not know their status, but it was hard to comment on how accurate that statistic is when applied to Minnesota.
“The patterns of infection are very different in different parts of country,” Carr said. “For example, New York has far more infections because of intravenous drug use than Minnesota.”
One of the most troubling aspects of the increase was that 42% of the men who were diagnosed with HIV last year had gotten themselves tested before, and 29% had gotten a test in the last year.
“The challenge is that people may be letting down their guard when it comes to practicing safer sex. Although there are medications to help treat HIV infection, some may mistakenly feel the threat of dying from HIV/AIDS is over,” Carr said.
As in years past, African-American gay and bi men bore a significantly higher burden of the disease than most other groups of Minnesotans – while they are only around 3% of the state’s population, they represented 39% of new cases last year.
“That’s not due to higher level of risky behavior,” Carr said. Rather, it’s “due to a higher level of what are called “social determinants” – access to health care, geographic concentration, poverty – that puts a population at greater risk of contracting a disease regardless of behavior.”