Hennepin County Medical Center marks World AIDS Day by making HIV testing routine
It’s been 35 years since an incurable viral infection called HIV/AIDS started making news in the urban centers of the US. First considered only a concern for the gay community, panic and stigma soon spread to many other groups. Testing has always been available, but most people do not ask their medical providers to routinely test for HIV for many reasons, including a reluctance to discuss sensitive issues and a feeling that one may not be at risk. Approximately 20 percent of individuals living with HIV in the US remain undiagnosed, and routine testing is an important step in reaching these individuals.
As of Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Hennepin County Medical Center joins HealthPartners and Mayo in making the HIV test part of regular preventive care for patients between 15 and 65, just like mammograms, cholesterol and colonoscopies. Nick Vogenthaler, MD, an Infectious Disease specialist and director of the Positive Care Center says, “It is important for patients to know that HIV can affect everyone and incorporate the test into their routine testing, at least once. We anticipate some surprises and are educating physicians and primary care providers on how to talk to their patients and open up important conversations about sexual health. If you have an opportunity to diagnose someone with HIV earlier, treatment is wildly successful when people are engaged with their care.”
Vogenthaler said studies find that many people who are diagnosed with HIV often have had several interactions with the health care system — but had not been tested.
“These were missed opportunities for HIV testing and missed opportunities for bringing these patients into the appropriate health care setting,” he said.
The key to making the program work is the electronic health record, which will give a doctor a prompt during a health care visit with a patient who shows no history of taking the HIV test. Vogenthaler says, “Patients can refuse to have the test. But if they do test and are found positive, they can be treated earlier; they can protect their partners and families. If all the health systems in the Twin Cities area were doing this testing, it would increase our ability to find cases and change the course of the epidemic.”
Today, many scientific advances have been made in HIV treatment, there are laws to protect people living with HIV and we understand so much more about the condition. But despite this, people do not know the facts about how to protect themselves and others from HIV, and stigma and discrimination remain a reality for many people living with HIV. There are also new preventive measures that can be taken by people in high-risk groups to prevent the spread of HIV, but they can’t take advantage of them if they don’t have a discussion with their provider about their risks.
HIV/AIDS in Minnesota
HIV is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system and causes illness often over a period of time. Many individuals have no apparent symptoms at first and others are diagnosed when critically ill. It is important to note that an HIV or AIDS diagnosis does not mean that an individual will soon die. While severe illness can develop, there are many effective medications available.
• According to the Minnesota Aids Project, there is one new HIV infection reported nearly every day in Minnesota.
• In 2014, 307 new cases of HIV were reported in Minnesota. The 307 new cases represent a 2 percent increase from 2013.
• There is a steadily increasing number of people living with HIV in Minnesota.
• As of December 31, 2014, 7,988 people are known to be living with HIV in Minnesota. It is not known how many other Minnesotans are living with HIV, but have not yet been tested.
• Gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV in Minnesota (67 percent of male cases). The numbers are particularly high among young gay and bisexual men (ages 20-29 account for 31 percent of new cases).
• Disproportionately impacted communities include African Americans, with 20 percent of newly diagnosed cases yet making up only 4 percent of the state’s population, African-born persons with 17 percent of newly diagnosed cases yet only make up 1 percent of population.
• Women of color made up 80 percent of the new cases among women in 2014, with African-born and African American most disproportionally impacted.
Injecting drug use only accounted for 2 percent of new infections in 2014.