CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has pledged to eliminate all new cases of HIV within a decade. The department says the plan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the landscape of public health.
Cuyahoga County was identified among 48 counties, Washington, D.C. and San Juan, Puerto Rico as a priority for the fight against HIV and aids because it has a high number of new HIV cases every year.
“We think this presents an excellent opportunity for Cuyahoga county and in the United States and so we are looking forward to the details and to get to work,” said County Board of Health Commissioner Terry Allan.
There are currently about 5,700 people living with HIV or AIDS in the Northeast Ohio region, but there are likely many more. The CDC estimates about 15% of people are HIV positive and don’t know it.
“I didn’t think I would be here 25 years later,” explains Kimberlin Dennis, who is HIV positive. She along with Robert Watkins, who is also HIV positive, serve on the Ryan White Planning Council, a group of people focused on the HIV epidemic in Cuyahoga County that advises the board of health on how to spend federal funds.
Many people who are HIV positive but don’t seek treatment because of stigma or other reasons may not realize that with a simple treatment it can be impossible for them to transmit the virus.
“It’s possible to suppress the amount of HIV virus in their system to the point that they can no longer transmit,” Allan explained. The medicine also makes the virus undetectable in an HIV positive person.
“I have the knowledge, I’ve personally gone through it so I am able to relay that information in a way that people understand and can grasp and be ok with it,” said Watkins, who has been HIV positive for more than three decades.
“Back in the day if you were positive there was no network or group of people that you could go to to actually talk to,” Watkins explains.
In February the federal government pledged to eliminate all new cases of HIV and reduce the virus by 90% in ten years through new technology and more investment.
President Trump revealed the lofty new goal for the first time briefly in his State of the Union address. Half of all new diagnoses in the US come from only a few dozen population centers and rural Southern states. Northeast Ohio, and Cuyahoga County in particular is a focus area for the new plan with more than 200 new cases in 2017.
“The majority of new cases occurring, about 46% are in African American males and also a majority of cases are people under 30,” Allan said.
The goal is to get more people tested, treated and then unable to transmit, which would drastically reduce the number of new cases every year.
Watkins is part of the effort aiming to reduce stigma and encourage people to get tested.
“I take them hand in hand, step by step through the process if I had had that it would have been a lot easier journey,” he said.
Dennis says she and the others of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Planning Council constantly evaluate the needs of the community and advise how public money is spent.
“There is hope when I see education, there is hope when I see testing, there is hope when I see medication,” Dennis said.
Dennis says eliminating new HIV cases is a high goal, but it’s one she’s already been working on for years.
“I’ve been hoping for this disease to end and I have hope in knowing that I will survive and live to see this disease end,” she said.
Those seeking services may be eligible to get help through the Ryan White Program and can find more information here.