Nearly three of four Americans living with HIV do not have the infection under control, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. The report speculates that the low percentage is because one in five Americans with HIV does not realize he is infected and, of those who are aware, only 51 percent receive ongoing medical care and treatment.
Of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, only an estimated 28 percent have a suppressed viral load (defined as viral load less than 200 copies of the blood-borne virus per milliliter of blood) – meaning that the virus is under control and at a level that helps keep them healthy and reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
However, of those living with HIV who are receiving care and are on antiretroviral treatment, 77 percent have suppressed levels of the virus. Effective HIV treatment and care benefit infected individuals by improving their health and are also important for HIV prevention. Results from a recent study of heterosexual couples from the National Institutes of Health showed that consistently taking antiretroviral therapy, in combination with safer behaviors, can reduce the risk of spreading HIV by 96 percent.
“While we have known that viral suppression can be achieved with proper HIV treatment and care, today’s new Vital Signs data highlight the challenges our country faces in keeping HIV-positive Americans in the care they need to control the virus,” said Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, in a statement. “By improving testing, linkage to care and treatment services, we can help people living with HIV feel better and live longer, and can reduce the spread of HIV dramatically. This is not just an individual responsibility, but a responsibility for families, partners, communities and health care providers.”
Men who have sex with men are most severely affected by HIV and are the least likely to know they are infected. They’re also less likely to receive prevention counseling.
Study authors underscore that improvements are needed at each stage in the overall process of treatment and care. That means increasing the number of infected Americans who are tested, linked to care, remain in care, receive prevention counseling and are successfully treated – all to achieve viral suppression.
“Closing the gaps in testing, access to care and treatment will all be essential to slowing the U.S. HIV epidemic,” said Jonathan Mermin, the director of the CDC’s division of HIV/AIDS prevention, in a statement. “HIV testing is the most important first step toward breaking the cycle of transmission. Combined with effective prevention services, linkage to care and ongoing effective treatment, testing provides a gateway to the most effective prevention tools at our disposal.”
To increase HIV testing rates among one of the populations most affected by HIV, black gay and bisexual men, the CDC also launched a new national awareness campaign, Testing Makes Us Stronger. The CDC collaborated with gay and bisexual community leaders, physicians and other experts to develop the campaign, which strives to raise awareness, improve access and increase the number of black gay and bisexual men who are aware of their HIV status.
Testing Makes Us Stronger encourages men to “stay strong and informed.” The ads depict a diverse range of black gay men, including individuals and couples. The campaign includes national print and online advertising; a dedicated website and Facebook page; promotion at black gay pride events; and outdoor and transit advertising in gay and African-American neighborhoods in six cities where black gay and bisexual men are heavily affected by HIV – Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, New York City, Oakland, Calif. and Washington, D.C.
“Black gay and bisexual men across the country are already doing many of the right things to protect themselves – but more need to make HIV testing a regular part of their lives,” said Kevin Fenton, the director of CDC’s national center for HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, STD and tuberculosis prevention, in a statement. “Testing Makes Us Stronger was designed by black gay men for black gay men and strives to communicate the power of knowing your HIV status as a first step toward staying healthy.”