GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a significant decrease in new HIV infections nationally. The largest decrease in new infections is among young people ages 13 to 24.
On a local level, however, health supervisors with the Kent County Health Department said they’re seeing a bit of a different trend.
“Here we’re seeing about a stable rate of HIV. We’ve seen maybe a slight decline over the last 10 years, but it’s very, very gradual. We get about 40 cases a year on average still in Kent County, so it’s definitely present here still,” said April Hight, program supervisor for KCHD personal health services.
Hight added that HIV often goes undiagnosed because some people do not have any symptoms. She recommends annual testing, which the health department offers for free.
“Everything we do is free. So a lot of people are still on their parents’ insurance, so there’s no billing of insurance, there are no EOBs that get sent, so that’s a big factor. We also do all the treatments for everything on hand here.”
In addition to testing at the clinic, the mobile unit acquired by KCHD when COVID-19 vaccines became available is now being used for HIV testing on the go. Health department staff plan to bring it out for Rock the Block and the GR Pride Festival.
“Part of what we’re trying to do with this initiative is just have it present and normal like a normal part of your health in the community, so maybe we only get a few people testing, but it’s there, and it normalizes it because it really should be normalized you know, it’s just a part of your health. If you’re between the ages of 15 and 24 especially, STDs are the most common in that age range, so STD testing too, which there’s a link between STDs and HIV,” Hight said.
On top of normalizing testing, KCHD is also working on preventative measures, including offering PrEP, which Hight explained has slowed down the number of new HIV infections. The health department will also be working closely this year with the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute and its HIV collaborative.
“We do a lot of education. We actually have STI alliances with a lot of area providers where we’re working on just getting everybody to do more HIV and syphilis testing like in ERs and doctors’ offices and things like that,” Hight said.
HIV typically takes several years to begin affecting a person’s immune system, which is why Hight said getting tested annually is so important.
“The sooner you test, the better because the meds they have can just turn it around completely and people are living until they’re 80, 90 years old just like everybody else.”