New bill aims to curb rising HIV rates


Minnesota legislators have introduced a bill that would create Minnesota’s first public education campaign about HIV/AIDS. New HIV infections have spiked in Minnesota over the past two years, leading public health organizations to look for ways to curb the epidemic here. SF 466 would direct the Minnesota Department of Health to develop a statewide campaign that provides information both to the general public and distinct communities.

The bill was introduced in the Senate late last week by Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, Sen. John Marty of Roseville and Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul.

Amy Brugh, public policy director for the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP), said a public health campaign around HIV is needed in Minnesota. “We feel like this legislation is so important,” she said. MAP runs the AIDSLine, which Brugh calls a “one-stop shop” for statewide information about HIV/AIDS. The phone service – coupled with new web-based chat feature – takes thousands of calls each year.

“In conversations with people there’s a lot of misinformation,” Brugh said. “For example, we get a lot of calls about saliva being a risk. It’s not.”

She said people around the state call the AIDSLine thinking they “have frequent HIV risk when there’s no risk.”

But a bigger concern for MAP is that Minnesotans might underestimate their risk for HIV infection. “We are concerned that some people don’t understand that having unprotected sex is risky.”

The latest data from the department of health shows a 25 percent increase in HIV infections in 2009 (data for 2010 is expected to be released this spring). That increase means the number of people who contracted HIV is at a 17-year high, on par with the early 1990s. And a significant number of those new HIV infections were among people under age 25.

Since the epidemic’s beginning in the early 1980s, Minnesota has never instituted a statewide public health campaign.

Brugh noted that such a campaign would help destigmatize HIV.

“We need to reduce stigma surrounding people living with HIV in Minnesota,” she said. “Stigma drives the epidemic as do homophobia and racism.”

Though timely, because of the budget deficit and the current makeup of the Minnesota Legislature, Brugh said the bill is not likely to pass, let alone be heard in committee. But she did say that the legislature has enacted similar programs in the past.

“Current statute funds a public education campaign on fetal alcohol disorder as well as other efforts. There is precedent for public health campaigns in the state,” she said.

And arming Minnesotans with information about HIV could save the state millions of dollars in the long run. Research has suggested that the costs of HIV infection to the health care system in 2006 were $2,100 a month or $618,000 over the lifetime for individuals living with HIV. At times, those costs are born by state-subsidized health programs.

“Investing in HIV infection is a fraction of the costs of treating HIV infection,” said Brugh.