An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States are living with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome) — and nearly one in seven of them don’t know they have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Chicago, that number is more than 3,000.
As part of the run-up to National HIV Testing Day, which is on June 27, members of Chicagoland HIV Testing Collaborative launched a month-long campaign to urge those most at risk of acquiring the disease to step-up and get tested. In its fourth year, the Step Up Get Tested campaign runs through June. The goal is to test 5,000 residents for the virus at various testing events at bars, neighborhood festivals and at city el stops.
“We estimate that there are currently more than 3,000 people living in Chicago who are not aware of their HIV positive status,” said Dr. Julie Morita, Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) commissioner. Morita spoke at a launch event for the campaign held last Thursday at the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph.
“This work will ensure that we will be able to close the gap and reach those individuals so they can be linked to care and receive treatment … and also reduce the chances of spreading HIV to others. Testing is an essential first step,” Morita added.
She noted awareness campaigns such as this has led to a 22 percent decrease in the city’s reported HIV cases over a ten-year period. But there is still work to do to reduce the disease in certain populations.
According to a recent CDPH HIV/AIDS surveillance report, African-Americans comprised half of all new HIV infections in 2013. And HIV is still prevalent in men who have sex with men (MSMs), especially among Black and Latinos.
“Young MSMs of color are among the few groups whose numbers are rising,” Morita said. “We know that we must continue our efforts to reach the community at large while ensuring young Black and Latino men are getting the resources they need to be safe.”
Young adults are also hit hard by HIV. The report noted young people ages 20-29 account for 38.6 percent of all new HIV cases in Chicago. In Austin, more than 760 per 100,000 people were living with HIV in 2012.
Lack of education and protection are to blame, said Alonzo Brown, executive director of Taskforce Prevention and Community Service, 9 N. Cicero. The 20-year-old Austin organization provides HIV/AIDS education, treatment and intervention to Latino and black youths, ages 13-24.
Teens and young adults, Brown noted, fail to take precaution against the disease, because they believe they’re invincible.
“They’re just not using protection, so it becomes an education and awareness issue,” Brown said.
Also preventing youths from seeking treatment is the stigma associated with the disease. Teens, regardless of their sexual orientation, don’t share their status because of fear of being ostracized by their peers, he noted.
“What we find is a lot of youth are marginalized from their families and their families put them out when they come out (as gay),” Brown said. “So they end up turning to other means of survival. Unfortunately, HIV becomes part of that equation when they are trying to survive and some of it is sex work.”