West Virginia has seen a surge in new HIV cases in the past couple of years. The White House is mounting a campaign to increase awareness of treatment options.
Medication can suppress HIV so that people living with the virus have virtually no risk of transmitting it. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, slightly more than half of West Virginians with HIV are receiving treatment. The national goal is 80 percent.
Tim Harrison, a senior policy adviser on HIV and AIDS policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says the state is part of a renewed focus by the Biden administration on HIV prevention and treatment.
“What the numbers really tell us is there are not enough people who are virally suppressed,” he said. “Viral suppression is the gold standard if we want individuals with HIV to live healthy lives as well as not being able to transmit the virus to their sexual partners.”
West Virginians who are at the highest risk for HIV might not know there is an effective medication that can prevent them from getting the virus. It’s called PrEP, and only a fraction of the people who fall in that category are taking it.
Needle exchange programs are another effective tool for preventing HIV transmission. But state and local governments have enacted policies to discourage needle exchanges.
Stigma, lack of health insurance and homelessness are factors that can also discourage HIV prevention and treatment.
The opioid epidemic has been a driver of increased HIV infections in a number of states, including West Virginia. Harrison says the problem needs more attention than it’s received.
“I think that West Virginia has gone under the radar, perhaps far too long,” he said. “And I think it’s really important that we’re recognizing the need that exists there.”
Harrison’s goal is to get more people into care and stay in care.