Seattle bucks the national trend on HIV rates

Nov 29, 2012

A resurgence of AIDS among young men nationally is raising alarm bells – but not in the King County area.  Local health officials say outreach efforts here could be a model for how the rest of the country can keep the AIDS epidemic under control. 

The surprising and grim picture emerged earlier this week from the federal Centers for Disease Control, as we head into World AIDS Day on Dec. 1st. The CDC says more than a quarter of all new HIV infections now come from young men between ages 13 and 24. Most of those are African-American men, particularly in the south and northeast. 

A separate CDC study finds that most new infections are spread among “men who have sex with men.”

HIV testing -- still the answer?

One reason the infection is spreading could be that most young men have never had an HIV test, according to the new CDC data. That means young men don’t know their status or that they may be spreading the virus. And, the survey found that it's common for them to have multiple sexual partners.

"One part of the price of our success [in controlling the AIDS epidemic] has been a reversion to higher risk behaviors," says Dr. Matt Golden, HIV/AIDS director for Public Health Seattle & King County.

However, in King County, he says, the trends are much more encouraging.

“We promote testing very heavily.  I think it’s very visible in King County,” says Golden, “So, I think our target population is aware.”

"When you go to see your doctor, he or she should test you at least once over the course of the time they are providing you medical care, just as a routine." - Dr. Matt Golden

The county has maintained HIV awareness campaigns in clinics, bath-houses and schools -- even though budgets have been tight. That’s not necessarily the case across the country. Public Health Seattle & King Count also heavily promotes condoms.

HIV-testing matters more than ever – because if you're infected and get treated, the virus can be suppressed. Just last week, a federal task force recommended that doctors should incorporate HIV tests into a routine checkup, just like a cholesterol test.

“When you go to see your doctor, he or she should test you at least once over the course of the  time they are providing you medical care, just as a routine,” says Golden.

If you happen to be in a high-risk group, such as young gay men, that’s even more critical.

King County accounts for about two-thirds of all new HIV infections in Washington. And 75% of those infections affect gay or bisexual men. Public Health is working with its sister agencies in Pierce and Snohomish Counties to expand their awareness campaigns.

Gay men are more susceptible to infection in part because of biology -- the virus spreads much more easily via anal sex than vaginal sex, says Golden.

“The increase that we're seeing and published previously are really being driven by the very significant increases that are occurring in gay and bisexual men, especially young men who have sex with men.  And over the past few years, we have been very concerned about the significant increases we have seen in young, black men who have sex with men," said Kevin Fenton of the CDC in a news conference this week. 

Fenton says the data point to an important role played by the stigma of being openly gay that's still common in many communities.