Wednesday marked World AIDS Day, but it’s important to note that AIDS and HIV are not the same; HIV is the virus that AIDS is the condition that can occur.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to HIV as an epidemic, cases have been declining in North Dakota since 2017.
Still, experts say there are precautions that should be taken, especially given the pandemic.
76 new cases of HIV were reported in North Dakota last year, with 35 of those being new cases — the rest are individuals who were already HIV positive and moved to the Peace Garden State.
This is a slight decline from 90 new cases that were reported in 2017, the highest in the decade.
However, the decline may have something to do with the amount of testing that is happening in our state.
“In 2020, we saw an over 56% decrease in the number of people that got tested. We only had about 3,200 people get tested that year,” said Sarah Weninger, HIV Prevention Coordinator for the Department of Health.
Being HIV positive does not always mean that one has AIDS, as HIV is the virus while AIDS is a condition where an individual is more susceptible to illnesses.
“People can live their whole life with HIV and never develop AIDS because of the medications that are available today,” said Weninger.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still quickly spreading around the world, individuals that are immunocompromised, such as those with HIV, are more at risk for developing severe complications from the coronavirus.
This is why experts like Weninger say testing is important if you believe you may have a risk of contracting HIV.
She said, “The big thing I want to encourage people is to get tested for HIV and to know their status. We at the state health department offer a program at CTR, they’re called Counseling Testing and Referral sites. We have that list on our website where people can get tested for HIV for free.”
This is especially important for those that are sexually active and are active with a new partner.
However, with new treatments that are available to the public, there is hope.
“What we’ve learned is that if you have HIV positive individuals, and they’re actually being treated. As a consequence of treatment, the HIV viral load is undetectable in the bloodstream. If the HIV virus is undetectable in the bloodstream, then that person is unlikely, close to 100%, unable to transmit the virus,” said Dr. Noe Mateo, with Sanford Health.
Dr. Mateo says the development of the mRNA vaccines like the ones used for the coronavirus is being tested in order to determine if the same technology can be used to develop a vaccine for HIV.
“How it is we are dealing with vaccine development has a lot of parallels. But I think the thing to keep in mind is that HIV as a plague has been kind of slow-moving which is in market contrast with COVID-19 which is very fast-moving,” said Mateo.
He also recommends those who are HIV positive get vaccinated and/or a booster shot to have the best protection possible.
Testing for HIV is available free of charge to the public, even for those that are uninsured or under-insured.
The tests involve a blood draw from the finger, and results can be delivered in as soon as 20 minutes.