Understanding, diagnosing and treating HIV and AIDS has come a long way since the early 1980s, when the virus and related medical complications were first identified.
“Drugs available today are absolutely wonderful,” says Katherine Minnick, MD, infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Ryan White Wellness Center at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “One small tablet once a day is helping to keep people healthy, and reliably lowers the virus to undetectable levels. All with a low risk of side effects and very high tolerability among patients.”
Not only are the medications safe and effective, but they are more widely available than ever before. “At our center and those like ours, we have the resources to treat anyone who comes to us, regardless of their ability to pay for treatment and care,” Dr. Minnick says.
In spite of this progress, rates of new HIV infection are rising in the Southern U.S. South Carolina ranks 11th in states with the highest incidence of new HIV and AIDS infection rates. Even more telling is that the Columbia metropolitan area is sixth in the nation in rates of new HIV and AIDS infection – only behind major cities like Washington D.C., New York City and Chicago.
The Ryan White Wellness Center sees evidence of this increase firsthand. In 2019, the Ryan White Center served a total of 868 patients with HIV and another 120 for HIV prevention. Statewide, numbers are similar. According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), there are 761 people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS each year in the state, a 30% increase in new infections from 2017 to 2018.
“We are seeing an alarming increase in new infections even as treatment has become readily accessible,” explains Dr. Minnick. “Much of this is because of a lack of awareness and realistic education about risk factors.”
Who is most at-risk for HIV and AIDS
Research has shown that African Americans are affected more by HIV/AIDS. The SCDHEC found that 68% of people living with HIV/AIDS were African American – nearly three times the number of white individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
Infection rates among young men who have sex with men (MSM) are also climbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified this group as most at-risk for HIV and AIDS. Infection rates among individuals who inject drugs are also increasing, though not as rapidly as among MSM.
Preventing HIV: Know your status, reduce risky behavior
The best way to prevent the spread of HIV is to know your status.
“Get tested,” encourages Dr. Minnick. “When you know your status and are realistic about your risk, you can take steps to stay healthy and prevent HIV infection.”
Testing, however, isn’t always as available as is recommended. “One in seven people with HIV infection don’t know they are infected. Routine testing of everyone between ages 13 and 64 has not been adopted by the medical community. We have a lot of work to do to make sure primary care doctors and community services partners are discussing high risk behaviors for HIV and offering tests to patients,” Dr. Minnick says.
If a person is at risk, there are steps to reduce their risk, including taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a safe and effective way for individuals who do not have HIV but are at risk to prevent getting the infection. Individuals take a pill every day, which then works to prevent the virus from establishing an infection.
Individuals can also keep themselves uninfected by:
- Using condoms
- Reducing the number of sexual partners
- Not sharing needles
- Having regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
Find care, education and support
The Ryan White Wellness Center is a sexual health center that delivers comprehensive care for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The Center also provides preventive services like PrEP and nPEP. Learn more about the services available at The Ryan White Wellness Center and how it supports patients in the area.