AIDS In RI: Who's At Risk?

Dec 2, 2013

It's World AIDS Day, and in Rhode Island several events are taking place to mark it, including an event earlier at the statehouse with the Rhode Island Coalition for HIV Prevention and announcements about new prevention initiatives by the Rhode Island Dept. of Health (more on those later).

The department's head, Dr. Michael Fine, has said that he wants to "get to zero," meaning that he wants to eliminate HIV transmission cases in the Ocean State. Can we do it? Maybe. Cases have been declining steadily. Over the past 10 years, 1548 HIV cases were diagnosed here, according to the department of health, but the number of cases diagnosed each year declined overall (HIV is the virus that causes AIDS).

But the state plan for "getting to zero" acknowledges that there are still some Rhode Islanders who are at higher risk, and public health officials are stepping up efforts to reach out to them. They include men who have unprotected sex with men, minority women, young minorities, and intravenous drug users. And outreach efforts include several free HIV testing sites, an anonymous needle exchange program via AIDS Care Ocean State, and medical assistance for people living with HIV or AIDS.

I've just learned about a new program at The Miriam Hospital to try to prevent HIV, a treatment called "pre-exposure prophylaxis." It's not 100% guaranteed to prevent HIV, but it's a drug regimen that's recently been approved by the FDA as a fairly effective means of preventing transmission in people who are at high risk - such as those groups I mention, above - but who don't have the virus.

Something else to keep in mind on this day, however: there's another disease transmitted through similar means (unprotected sex, sharing needles) that doesn't seem to be getting to zero in Rhode Island. That disease is hepatitis C, and we need some of the same prevention tools to deal with it too. New hepatitis cases "dwarf" new HIV cases in the Ocean State, according to the Rhode Island Public Health Association. And just like HIV can become the debilitating and, ultimately, fatal AIDS, hep C can lead to devastating liver disease and death. They're both totally preventable and both getting easier to treat, but they don't always get the same public health dollars.

The most important thing we can all do to prevent transmitting these diseases is, beyond practicing safe sex and never sharing needles (or, best of all, getting into a drug treatment program), to get tested. You can't prevent or treat what you don't know you have.