HIV rate of infection in St. Clair and Madison counties remains high

News-DemocratSeptember 14, 2013 

An additional 79 people living in Madison and St. Clair counties were diagnosed with HIV last year, according to state health officials, and 40 more local residents were diagnosed with AIDS.

In St. Clair County, 48 people were diagnosed with HIV and 25 with AIDS in 2012, the latest figures available. While the number of residents diagnosed is slightly less than in 2011, the county has the fifth-worst rate of residents with HIV in the state and fourth-worst rate of those with AIDS in the state.

In Madison County, 31 people were diagnosed with HIV and 15 with AIDS in 2012. The number of those diagnosed is an increase from the 9 people newly diagnosed with HIV and 5 with AIDS in 2011.

State statistics show a continually high rate of those inflicted with the disease in St. Clair County, and a significant jump in those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in Madison County. The number of people living with HIV or AIDS in those counties has risen about 30 percent in the past five years, according to an analysis of state statistics. In Madison County it's consistent at 29 percent.

AIDS is the final stage of the incurable HIV disease, which weakens a person's immune system and leaves their body unable to fight infections. It can be spread through sexual contact, needle sharing or from mother to child.

A variety of factors have kept the HIV/AIDS epidemic from abating since it began 30 years ago, according to Jeffery Erdman with the Illinois Public Health Association. The Association partners with state health officials to provide HIV prevention programs throughout Illinois.

"Even though we think in the public eye the message has gotten out there, it is not always the case," Erdman said. "Another fact is human nature, as it is, is sort of an interesting beast. People have lots of competing priorities. ... A lot of our clients are disenfranchised, low-income. If they are struggling to put food on the table, find a place to stay or a job, the last thing on their mind is getting tested or treated for HIV."

Part of the problem has been a lack of sexual education in public schools, Erdman said. He added a new state law requiring school districts with sex-ed classes to teach comprehensive classes, including condom usage along with abstinence, will hopefully help education efforts.

While the rate of HIV infections among needle-users and from mothers to newborns has dropped, the rate among men having sex with other men has continued to rise, Erdman said.

"One thing I can tell you that has been consistent the past few years is that HIV cases seem to be going up among young men having sex with men. Particularly among young men of color, HIV rates seem to be going up pretty dramatically in that population. ...," Erdman said. "They are not necessarily engaging in more risky activity but statistically coming into contact more frequently."

Cases up 30 percent in five years

State health officials now believe 697 residents in St. Clair County are living with HIV or AIDS. In the past five years, the number of St. Clair County residents inflicted with the disease has risen more than 30 percent. In 2007, 535 people living in the county had HIV or AIDS, according to state records.

Madison County has seen a jump of 29 percent in the number of residents with HIV and AIDS in the past five years. The county had 226 residents living with the disease in 2007 and 292 such residents in 2012, according to state records.

Tina Markovich is the HIV program manager with the St. Clair County Health Department. The department serves as the lead agency for HIV care services in a 12-county region, including St. Clair County and Madison counties. The program is funded through the state and federal sources, and helps low-income patients find treatment and other resources.

A shortage of physicians specializing in HIV/AIDS has spurred concerns that residents with the disease will not continue to have access to needed specialty care, Markovich said.

"Fortunately, Medicaid expansion and the availability of insurance due to the Affordable Care Act will provide much needed medical coverage for many of the (program's) clients," Markovich said, adding the shift will maximize state funding by shifting cost from medications and office visits to co-pays, deductibles and premium assistance.

"However, the improvements in medical coverage could add to the existing high patient load of infectious disease and specialty physicians providing the medical care for these individuals. There is a shortage of physicians who specialize in HIV care," she said.

"The evolution of medical care and medications for treating HIV is constant and physicians who are willing and able to keep up with the changes are crucial to assuring high-quality health care for individuals with HIV."

Markovich said it is difficult to know exactly why an increase in diagnosed cases occur because many factors can contribute to the increase. One, however, may be the availability of easier and cheaper testing in both counties through the Madison County AIDS Program and the Ryan White HIV Care Services in St. Clair County.

Bethany Place in Belleville also offers some services for AIDS patients, but a controversial needle exchange program there has been tied up in court challenges and appeals. A spokesman for Bethany Place declined to comment on why HIV and AIDS cases continue to rise.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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