By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
During the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was anyone’s guess as to how quarantine and isolation would affect the rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease, which had been inching lower.
The New York State HIV/AIDS Annual Surveillance Report released in March 2021 by the Division of HIV Epidemiology, Evaluation and Partner Services states that in 2020, 26 people living in Onondaga County were newly diagnosed with HIV, three in Oswego, two in Madison and five in Cayuga counties.
Donna White, director of the Bureau of Disease Control for Onondaga County, said that the number have remained “relatively stable over the past several years,” citing access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for people at risk for HIV as a probable reason.
“The STD currently causing the greatest concern in our county is syphilis, for which the incidence rate has quadrupled,” White said. “In 2020, only 28 new cases of syphilis (5.9 per 100,000) were reported. In 2021, the number climbed to 119 cases (25.0 per 100,000), and in 2022 we have already had 119 cases to date.”
Syphilis raises concern because if left untreated, infections can last for years, “potentially resulting in severe disease,” White added. “Additionally, syphilis can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy, posing significant risks to the fetus.”
Statewide, HIV rates have begun to climb and cities like Rochester and Buffalo, have seen spikes. Matthew Crehan Higgins, associate vice president specialty care at Evergreen Health in Buffalo, in part blames the increase in HIV diagnoses on the hesitancy of patients in seeking medical care for symptoms because they feared catching COVID-19. Seeking a diagnosis early can mean early treatment, which in the case of HIV can mean preventing progression of the infection.
“Ultimately, while seeing increases in diagnoses is never comfortable, an impact of increased access to and provision of testing is that those infections are identified earlier than they may have been in the past and the person has opportunity to access treatment quickly,” Higgins said. “The most important thing for people to know, especially if they are not currently aware of their HIV status, is that knowledge is power. HIV treatment can be accessed quickly and is very effective.”
Once a patient receives diagnosis, antiretroviral therapy can help maintain good health and reduce risk of transmitting HIV. No cure for HIV exists. For people who are HIV negative but at risk, HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis medication can prevent acquiring HIV.
“There are more options than ever with HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis available in pill based and long-acting injectable forms,” Higgins said.
“At the end of 2019, the New York State Department of Health began discussion of reframing the conversation away from the outdated disease-based model and toward a sexual health model, which is the path we have been on for a long time. Pressing forth with messages of fear have never worked but making people aware of the options that exist for people of any HIV status and supporting their harm reduction-based choices appears to be having a good impact overall.”