In the second half of the 20th century, modern medicine was able to conquer smallpox and polio. Then, in the 1980s, another public health epidemic reared its ugly head: human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV and AIDS.
We’re not hearing as much about that these days, though, so science has wrestled that under control, right? Wrong.
HIV/AIDS is still out there, and people are still getting sick and dying.
And as part of keeping us all aware of that deadly health scourge, Maryland has joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recognize National HIV Testing Day — tomorrow, June 27.
According to the Maryland Department of Health, there were 1,040 new diagnoses of HIV infection among people in the state 13 and older in 2017 (the latest year reported). In all, 30,566 adults and adolescents were living with HIV in Maryland. That puts us at No. 5 in the nation of the number of diagnosed cases per 100,000 people — not a list you want to be on.
And worse still, according to the CDC estimates, more than 991,000 people were living with undiagnosed HIV in the United States. And the CDC says as many as 12% more cases in Maryland have not yet been detected.
Locally, according to the MDH, there were six new HIV cases diagnosed in St. Mary’s in 2017, bringing the county’s total of living infected patients to 169. In Calvert County, five new cases were diagnosed in 2017 for a total of 130. In Charles County, 24 more people were diagnosed with HIV, bringing the number of people living with the infection there to 518.
For anyone who is sexually active, these numbers should be jarring. And it’s important to spread the word that HIV isn’t dead, and it can be absolutely deadly.
The goal of the national testing day is to raise awareness about the importance of getting tested through initiatives like school and family outreach, getting people in the community to learn about and talk about HIV/AIDS. The three local health departments in Southern Maryland are loaded with information about the virus, and are always willing to share that knowledge with the public.
The St. Mary’s County Health Department is offering free of charge OraQuick Rapid HIV testing, as well as free hepatitis C testing, through Friday at its headquarters at 21580 Peabody St. in Leonardtown from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and at its harm reduction program office at 46035 Signature Lane in Lexington Park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 301-475-4330 for more information about this confidential service.
Aside from statistics proving the prevalence of HIV and AIDS is still an issue today, one major reason people should consider getting tested is that most people with HIV don’t realize they have it, as they rarely exhibit symptoms. But knowing you have it can go a long way to helping yourself — and others — as HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, the final stage of an HIV infection that leads to a weakened immune system, inhibiting the body’s ability to ward off even minor infections.
Fortunately, modern treatments for HIV-positive individuals can help those with HIV go on to live full, active lives and keep them from progressing to the AIDS stage. Those most at risk who should consider getting tested, according to the health department, include anyone who has had sex without a condom (yes, even just once), had sex with more than one partner, previously had a sexually transmitted disease or ever shared a needle with someone.
Of course, anyone can contract HIV — both women and men, both straight and gay. The only way to know for sure if you have it is to get tested.
So if you’re uncertain of your status, find out. Knowledge is the first step.