Last year, 225 new cases of HIV infection were diagnosed in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin HIV/AIDS Surveillance Annual Review for 2015.
That number is lower than the average of 247 new cases reported per year in Wisconsin over the past decade. But it’s slightly higher than the 221 cases recorded in 2014, when Wisconsin recorded the ninth lowest HIV-infection rate in the nation.
The 2015 review also showed ongoing disparities in new infections among men who have sex with men and people of color. Men in the state acquired the infection at 7 times the rate of women last year, with 196 new cases reported among males, compared to 29 among females.
Sixty-two percent of the new cases were among racial and ethnic minorities, even though they make up only 17 percent of the state’s population. From 2011 to 2015, the HIV infection rate among black males has been 16 times the rate among white males. Hispanic males have acquired the disease at 6 times the rate of white males during the same period.
Among women, the infection-rate disparity was even higher: African-American females were infected at 25 times the rate of white women, and Hispanic women were infected at 8 times the rate.
The infection rate for men who have sex with other men was the highest of all groups, accounting for 80 percent of all new diagnoses last year. Half of the men who were infected through gay sex were under 30 years old.
"This report demonstrates the importance of continuing to focus on the still-fatal AIDS epidemic, and especially its disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities, said Michael Gifford, CEO and president of AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, in a prepared statement.
“We’ve got the tools to turn the tide,” said Bill Keeton, ARCW vice president of government and public relations. “We’re already seeing it.”
One of ARCW’s most promising tools is its PrEP clinic. PrEP is an acronym for “pre-exposure prophylaxis.” People using PrEP simply take an anti-retroviral pill once daily to protect them from acquiring HIV infection.
The strategy reduces the infection rate among at-risk people who don’t use condoms or don’t know the HIV status of their partners.
If every HIV-negative person in an at-risk community was on PrEP, and every HIV-infected person in an at-risk community was on medications that suppress the amount of virus in their blood to undetectable levels, then the community could become free of the virus.
“It’s going to take a while for people to understand it and get comfortable with it,” Keeton said.
Currently ARCW has about 60 individuals enrolled in PrEP, although there are probably more who are receiving the treatment through private physicians.
On gay online hook-up sites in many cities across the country, men are listing their HIV status either as “on PrEP” or “undetectable.” Still, epidemiologists warn that using condoms and adhering to safer-sexual behavior is the only way to ensure that you will not become infected or infect others.
“With PrEP and unfettered access to health care, (we’re) definitely moving in the right direction,” Keeton said. “The trend is good.”
“We’ll start to see the impact of the PrEP programs in the surveillance report that comes out a year from now,” he predicted.
In the meanwhile, ARCW has its work cut out for it. More than 7,900 people in the state are living with the virus, and the overwhelming burden of HIV disease is among young men and people of color, according to Gifford.
ARCW is working to provide comprehensive wrap-around services, which includes everything from finding a job and a place.