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On World AIDS Day 2011, Utah HIV/AIDS numbers dropping

Published December 1, 2011 10:06 am

Prevention efforts and recession may be causes of 32% fall.
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After several years of steady growth in the number of Utahns with HIV or AIDS, new cases sharply declined in 2010.

Both new HIV infections and AIDS diagnoses dropped by 32 percent between 2009 and 2010, state data show.

Because Utah has a small number of new HIV infections and AIDS diagnosis each year — 86 in 2010 — a small change can make a big statistical impact. Nevertheless, officials say their prevention efforts may be making a difference.

"Our messages are out in the community," said Lynn Meinor, manager of the communicable disease prevention program at the Utah Department of Health. "They're using condoms more and they're taking precautions."

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, an event that will be marked in Utah with the red illumination of City Hall in Salt Lake City and free HIV testing throughout the Salt Lake Valley. In Utah, 2,551 residents are infected with HIV, compared to 1.2 million across the nation.

The HIV virus destroys certain blood cells which help the body combat disease. AIDS is the syndrome that can result from HIV infection.

Another theory about the recent dip in Utah infections connects to the recession.

"Over this past year, because of what's going on in the economy, [perhaps] people have not gone in to be tested," Meinor said. "Maybe they've lost their insurance and it's not a high priority for them."

In Utah and across the nation, the majority of those who have newly acquired the virus are men. Sixty-one percent of the new diagnoses in Utah reported male-to-male sexual contact. Another 19 percent participated in injection drug use along with male-to-male sexual activities.

Health officials and advocates continue to reach out through education campaigns and on-site rapid testing at places such as bars and clubs and the Utah Pride Festival. As medical treatment for AIDS has improved, attitudes have changed, said Tyler Fisher, programming director Utah AIDS Foundation.

"People aren't afraid of HIV the way they were when they saw their friends getting sick," he said. "There's those myths that HIV is treated with a drug — they don't realize it's a regimen of medication." Those drugs can be expensive and difficult to tolerate, Fisher added.

Other efforts include education sessions on sexually transmitted diseases at youth detention facilities, jails, women's substance abuse treatment centers and elsewhere.

Officials are also reaching out to the state's Latino population, in light of the disproportionately high number of Latinos with a new HIV infection. In 2010, 30 percent of new infections were Latino. By contrast, Utah's population is 13 percent Latino, according to census data. Advocates have visited Latino health fairs, predominately Latino churches and bars to educate and test for the virus.

Next year, the health department plans to increase its efforts among Utah's refugee community, a growing group of legal immigrants from countries such as Somalia and Bhutan. In some cases, fear and confusion about HIV persist among these newcomers.

"We'd like to start with some education," Meinor said. "Hopefully to reduce the stigma and discrimination."

jlyon@sltrib.com —

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