Anton LaMar speaks during a conference announcing Hennepin County’s new HIV strategy. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Hennepin County aims to reduce HIV infections

Updated: December 5, 2016 – 3:28 pm

Positively Hennepin plan calls for expanded HIV testing, preventative medication

Hennepin County on Thursday unveiled a new comprehensive strategy for preventing and treating HIV.

The Positively Hennepin strategy aims to increase HIV testing, expand access to preventative medicine, connect patients to care and raise public awareness. The strategy also aims reduce the number of HIV infections in the county by five percent by 2018.

“We can turn the corner on this,” Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison said, “but we cannot stop the spread of this disease alone.”

Hennepin County sees about 160 new HIV diagnoses a year, said Jonathan Hanft, coordinator of the county’s Ryan White Program, which provides care for people living with HIV. About 40 percent of people with HIV in the county are not accessing care.

The new strategy aims to identify and re-engage people with HIV who have not accessed care or who have dropped out of it. It calls for better utilizing data to connect people to care, scaling up routine testing and reducing HIV-related stigma.

The strategy comes about six years after the federal government released its own HIV/AIDS strategy. Work on the Hennepin County strategy began in 2015, with about 50 community stakeholders contributing to it, Hanft said.

More than 4,300 people with HIV were living in Hennepin County as of 2014, according to the county, with 168 new diagnoses in 2015. Hanft said 12 percent of people with HIV in Minnesota don’t realize they have it.

The infection hits especially hard among people of color and men who have sex with men. Blacks are five times more likely to acquire HIV than whites, and men who have sex with men are 52 times more likely to acquire HIV than other men. One of two black men who have sex with men will acquire the infection in their lifetime.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that it costs about $380,000 to treat HIV/AIDS over a person’s lifetime.

Dr. Nicholas Vogenthaler, medical director of the Positive Care Center at HCMC and the Red Door at Hennepin County Public Health Clinic, said HIV-positive people live as long as their HIV-negative peers, however.

Central to the new strategy is increasing opportunities for HIV testing, something federal guidelines recommend routinely for people between 15 and 65 years old. HIV testing is covered as a preventative service under the Affordable Care Act, meaning that it’s covered without a copay.

The county says it would like for 90 percent of residents living with HIV to know their status by 2018.

The strategy also calls for increased access to pre-exposure prophylaxis, a daily pill to prevent HIV that can reduce risk by up to 92 percent. The county hopes to double the number of high-risk people on the medication by 2018.

The county also hopes to retain 80 percent of people diagnosed with HIV in care and achieve viral suppression in 70 percent of people diagnosed. Viral suppression means a person has a low amount of HIV in their blood and a reduced risk of transmitting the virus.

The county unveiled the strategy Thursday as part of the 28th annual World AIDS Day. About 55 percent of all Minnesotans living with HIV resident in Hennepin County, and 25 percent of new HIV cases in the state are identified at the county’s public health clinic.

“If we can turn the curve in Hennepin County, we believe we can turn the curve on a statewide basis,” said Minnesota Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Paul Allwood.

Reducing discrimination, stigma

State Sen. Scott Dibble spoke during the unveiling ceremony and said the strategy is a great way to pull together. He said the stigma of HIV and AIDS still remains, however, despite advances in diagnosing and treating the disease.

“In some ways, we are the victim of our own success,” he said. “People still suffer discrimination and stigma.”

Ejay Jack, who supervises the HIV outreach team at Red Door, said people still have the idea that HIV equals death, adding that he hopes for a larger media campaign to get people asking more questions.

Hanft said the county hopes to hire a community organizer and find out more about what’s behind the stigma.

Anton LaMar, a 28-year-old ballet dancer living with HIV, said he felt very alone when he was diagnosed in 2012. He spiraled into a depression, he said, and was unmoved by the notion that he could have a normal life.

He said he doesn’t see enough concern about HIV and AIDS from the general public but appeared hopeful that the new strategy could help.

“Things are getting better,” he said. “It’s conversations that make it good.”