Lots of progress since first AIDS death in Nevada, but still work to do
October is HIV/AIDS Awareness Month. For some 40 years, the U.S. has been at war with the virus.
Nevada recorded its first AIDS death in 1983. Over the years, medical treatment has improved greatly, but AIDS is still considered a worldwide epidemic.
Some 1.2 million people in the United States live with HIV/AIDS, though about 13%, or 150,000 people, don’t know it. Of those 13%, the age group affected most are those 25 to 34 years of age, followed by those 35 to 44 years old. Black people have the highest rate of infection, at 42%, followed by Latinos and Hispanics people, at 21%.
There has been improvement. Infections in the U.S. fell 8% from 2015 to 2019. The United States has said it will consider the epidemic over when annual infections fall to 3,000 per year. The goal is to get there by 2030.
That’s a long way to go before we can say HIV/AIDS is no longer an epidemic.
Dr. Cortland Lohff is the chief medical officer of the Southern Nevada Health District, which tests and treats HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. It also provides information for HIV/AIDS and STI prevention. He joins State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann, as well as Antioco Carrillo, the executive director for Aid for AIDS of Nevada.
The health district’s sexual health clinic provides testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Lohff said they take private insurance, but they offer a sliding scale fee for those without.
“What makes the HIV virus so dangerous is that it attacks the immune system, the cells that comprise our immune system, and as it attacks, the cells that comprise our immune system, our body is no longer able to fight infections. And that's really the hallmark of this disease,” he said.
More than 670,000 people have died from AIDS in the United States. About 13,000 people still die from it annually. Compared to even 10 years ago, that’s “dramatically better” than what medical professionals had seen in the past.
But today, it’s generally not the death sentence it once was, as treatment can leave virus levels undetectable. That means they aren’t able to transmit the virus to their sexual partners, but Lohff said those patients still have HIV.
In the meantime, the CDC last month said U.S. infection rates of several other STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, continued to rise in 2021. New syphilis infections rose 26%. Lohff said while people didn’t have access to testing and resources during the pandemic, viruses spread.
Carrillo was a teenager in the 1980s, when HIV emerged and he was diagnosed with the virus. He’s been working with HIV/AIDS groups since 1994.
“Even then, the challenges that we had at that time, it was a lot of death and a lot of panic, a lot of challenges that we saw with a lot of our clients that were being discriminated against, because they had HIV, they had AIDS. People didn't know how to treat someone like that, and it was horrible,” he said.
His personal experience was terrifying, he said. His work saved his life: “I was very aware of all the things that I needed to do to stay safe.”
Now, the issue he says he sees with their clients is becoming poorer as a result of treatment for the infection.
“It's something that I see all the time because if you choose to continue to go to the hospital, you're going to be missing more days at work. And sometimes, if people still find out that you're HIV positive at work, your [at a] higher risk of being terminated,” Carrillo said.
Another concern in the gay community is monkeypox, which anyone of any gender can get, and is not technically an STI, but is transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact. Most of the known monkeypox patients in the U.S. are gay men.
“Is there something about us that puts us at a higher risk, or, as a community, we have learned to pay attention to the early symptoms that we see and access medical care as soon as possible?” Carrillo said.
As of last week, there were 250 known cases in Southern Nevada, according to the health district, averaging about one to three new cases per day. They’ve given out about 7,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine.
“We want to try to do whatever we can to stop that transmission. And to get to a point where we're no longer seeing any cases,” Lohff said.
Here's how AFAN's Black and White Party started three decades ago, according to Carrillo:
It goes back to how people reacted to the appearance of HIV/AIDS in the community, and how tough it was for people to receive food in rented apartments and all those charges. People decided to get together in someone's apartment in Henderson, and they wanted to hold a party. They wanted to do it to benefit the pantry of AFAN. What they decided to do, they decided to ask people for canned food. And there was a generic can that was black and white years ago. So if you just give us black and white cans that were good to go, bring ‘em over. A few people went, they collected all the cans, and they took it over to the organization.
They realized that it was somebody's birthday and that it was potentially an idea to do a fundraiser. The following year, there were more people that decided to go and have those cans, that was the entrance to the party. And as they moved forward, those parties started to grow in attendance, and then it was in somebody's backyard, and then it was in somebody else's other backyard in a bigger place. And by the time I came to the first one, which was in 1994, it was the Athletic Club in Green Valley. The idea was you bring your cans that you buy from the store, and then that's the entrance, or $50, if you didn't want to do it. It progressed from the need of not having our audience, the infrastructure that will take care of our clients that were suffering with HIV/AIDS.
AFAN’s 36th annual Black and White Party fundraiser is on Saturday, Oct. 22. “It evolved into what is now one of the hottest events of the year, where we have up to 2,000 people, depending on the year, we have even more. And we have the support from the entire community," Carrillo said.
Antioco Carrillo, executive director, Aid for Aids of Nevada; Cortland Lohff, chief medical officer, Southern Nevada Health District