Much progress since first AIDS death in Nevada, but more work to be done

October is HIV/AIDS Awareness Month. For forty years, the United States has been at war against the virus.

Nevada recorded its first AIDS death in 1983. Over the years, medical treatment has improved dramatically, but AIDS is still considered a global epidemic.

Some 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS, although about 13%, or 150,000 people, are unaware of it. Among these 13%, the age group most affected is that of 25 to 34 years, followed by that of 35 to 44 years. Black people have the highest infection rate, at 42%, followed by Latinos and Hispanics, at 21%.

There has been an improvement. Infections in the United States fell 8% from 2015 to 2019. The United States said it would consider the epidemic over when annual infections drop to 3,000 per year. The goal is to get there by 2030.

It is a long way to go before we can say that 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 on HIV/AIDS and STI prevention. He joins state of nevada host Joe Schoenmann; and Antioco Carrillo, executive director of Aid for AIDS of Nevada.

The Health District Sexual Health Clinic offers testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Lohff said they take out private insurance, but offer sliding scale fees for those who don’t have it.

“What makes the HIV virus so dangerous is that it attacks the immune system, the cells that make up our immune system, and when it attacks the cells that make up 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 of AIDS in the United States. About 13,000 people still die from it every year. Compared to even 10 years ago, this is “considerably better” than what medical professionals had seen in the past.

But today it’s generally not the death penalty it once was, as treatment can leave levels of virus undetectable. That means they can’t transmit the virus to their sexual partners, but Lohff said those patients were still HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, the CDC said last month that U.S. infection rates of several other STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, continued to rise in 2021. New syphilis infections rose by 26%. Lohff said that even though people didn’t have access to testing and resources during the pandemic, the viruses spread.

Carrillo was a teenager in the 1980s when HIV emerged and he was diagnosed with the virus. He has worked with HIV/AIDS groups since 1994.

“Even then the challenges we had at that time were a lot of death and a lot of panic, a lot of the challenges that we saw with a lot of our clients who were being discriminated against, because they had the HIV, they had AIDS. People didn’t know how to treat someone like that, and it was awful,” he said.

His personal experience was terrifying, he says. His work saved his life: “I was very aware of all the things I had to do to stay safe.”

Now the problem he says he sees with their clients is getting worse as a result of treatment for the infection.

“It’s something I see all the time because if you choose to keep going to the hospital, you’re going to miss more days of work. And sometimes, if people still find out you’re HIV-positive at work, your [at a] higher risk of being fired,” Carrillo said.

Another concern in the gay community is monkeypox, which anyone of either sex can get, and isn’t technically an STI, but is spread primarily through skin-to-skin contact. Most known monkeypox patients in the United States are gay men.

“Is there something inside of us that puts us at higher risk or, as a community, have we learned to pay attention to the early symptoms we see and access medical care as soon as possible?” Carrillo said.

Last week, there were 250 known cases in southern Nevada, according to the health district, averaging about one to three new cases a day. They distributed about 7,000 doses of monkeypox vaccine.

“We want to try to do everything we can to stop this transmission. And to get to a point where we don’t see any more cases,” Lohff said.

Here is how AFAN’s Black and White Party began three decades ago, according to Carrillo:

It goes back to how people reacted to the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the community, and how difficult it was for people to get food in rented apartments and all those charges. People decided to meet at someone’s apartment in Henderson, and they wanted to throw a party. They wanted to do it for the benefit of AFAN’s pantry. What they decided to do, they decided to ask people for canned food. And years ago there was a generic can that was black and white. So if you just give us black and white cans that were good to go, bring them. A few people went, they picked up all the cans, and they gave them to the organization.

They realized it was someone’s birthday and it was potentially a fundraiser idea. The following year, there were more people who decided to go for these cans, it was the entrance to the party. And as they went along, these parties started to increase, and then it was in someone’s backyard, then it was in someone else’s other backyard in a bigger place. And by the time I got to the first one, it was 1994, it was the Green Valley Athletic Club. The idea was that you bring your cans that you buy from the store and then it’s entry, or $50, if you didn’t want to. It evolved from the need not to have our audience, the infrastructure that will take care of our clients who were suffering from HIV/AIDS.

AFAN’s 36th Annual Black and White Party Fundraiser will take place on Saturday, October 22. And we have the support of the whole community,” Carrillo said.

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