The AIDS epidemic doesn’t make headlines much anymore.
But the Human Immunodeficiency Virus still imposes a costly toll on Americans, even in Gila County.
Despite medications that can keep the virus under control, the collapse of the immune system it causes still kills 39,000 Americans annually.
That’s why counties throughout Arizona have struck a deal with the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS in Phoenix to hand out free condoms and other products shown to reduce the spread of the virus through sexual contact.
Gila County has a relatively low infection rate — about 97 cases per 100,000 population — a total of 52 cases in 2016. By contrast, the statewide infection rate stands at 262 per 100,000, according to the latest HIV surveillance report issued by the state health department.
In Gila County, homosexual sex accounted for about half of the known cases. However intravenous needles accounted for a third and heterosexual sex for about 12 percent.
In Arizona, 15 percent of all HIV positive individuals are not aware of their status.
HIV continues to move through the population, spawning fresh cases of AIDS. The virus can cause the collapse of the immune system and lead to a slow, debilitating death. Fortunately, an array of drugs can keep the virus in check, at a cost of $1,000 to $3,500 per year in the U.S. At one time, the treatments cost more like $10,000 annually, but prices have come down as choices have proliferated.
There has been a rise in IV drug use related to the opiate epidemic, leading to a surge in heroin use and the widespread sharing of needles. That means the virus also spreads through heterosexual sex, once one partner is infected.
Statewide, there are about 18,190 people with AIDS or HIV infections. That works out to a rate of 262 cases per 100,000 residents.
The urban counties generally have higher rates than rural counties. For instance, in Pinal and Maricopa counties the estimated prevalence stands at 291 per 100,000, accounting for 74 percent of the cases statewide, although the two counties have just 68 percent of the population.
Nationally, 1.1 million Americans are infected with the virus, but one in seven don’t even know they’re infected and likely to infect others, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, another 39,000 Americans become infected. Infections rates remained relatively stable nationally between 2012 and 2016. Numbers had been on the decline from 2007 to 2012, but began to rise again with the surge in IV drug use. The biggest increases have been in people between 25 and 34 years old.
Worldwide, nearly 40 million people are infected and the virus still kills about 800,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization.
The CDC reports that only about half of the 1.1 million Americans infected are undergoing treatment that has controlled the virus. The lifetime cost of treatment comes to $478,000 per patient.
The CDC estimates that AIDS education and prevention efforts have averted an estimated 30,000 infections annually, a savings of about $15 billion annually in treatment costs.
Every $1 spent on testing saves $2 in direct medical costs — both by starting treatment early and by reducing the risk people who don’t know they’re infected will spread the virus further.