Newly diagnosed HIV cases rise in Alaska; health care providers call for precautions, not alarm
The Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association logo hangs on the wall next to an HIV/AIDS awareness poster. The Four A’s organization has worked to promote awareness of sexually transmitted infections among other services. (Photo by Sophia Carlisle/Alaska Beacon)
A recent public health advisory warned of an increase in newly diagnosed HIV cases in Fairbanks and the Interior. The announcement comes at a time when Alaska is experiencing higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. However, health care providers say that the public shouldn’t be too concerned about the increase, but still take necessary precautions to protect themselves.
State public health officials began to see a rise in cases during the fall of 2022, according to an advisory the state issued in late January. Some organizations are seeing this increase continue this year. The Interior AIDS Association in Fairbanks reported four new clients recently diagnosed with HIV so far this year, according to Anna Nelson, who is the executive director of the organization. She said that while the increase is noticeable, it is not an epidemic. And more importantly, she noted that individuals who test positive for HIV are able to live comfortably with it.
“It’s also not a death sentence anymore. It is very much a manageable chronic disease,” she said.
Nelson emphasized that in Alaska, there are many different options for people living with HIV to get help, including opportunities for low-income patients to access prescription medications that can help manage the condition. But she underscored that the goal was prevention rather than reaction. “The best we can do is keep reminding people to protect themselves,” she said.
The purpose of the public health advisory is to ensure people understand the risk factors that may contribute to someone contracting HIV, especially when rates of sexually transmitted diseases in Alaska are up, said Kamala Stiner, who is an HIV/STD program manager for the Alaska Department of Health.
Understanding the risk factors is especially important for those who have a higher chance of contracting HIV. Stiner said that people with same sex or multiple intimate partners may be more at risk of infection. She also pointed out the increased risk for individuals experiencing homelessness and substance misuse as well.
While the infection itself is serious, where people primarily see problems today is in its reception, Robin Lutz said. Lutz is the executive director of the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, also known as Four A’s. She believes that the stigma surrounding a diagnosis of HIV may create more boundaries than the actual condition might.
“HIV is really stigmatized and people are served up a lot of shame around an HIV diagnosis,” Lutz said. “So the support that might be available to someone who is newly diagnosed with diabetes or possibly cancer is often not available at all for someone with HIV. In fact, it has the opposite effect of being more isolating.”
Lutz and the staff at Four A’s are trying to curb the stigma of HIV. They offer a variety of support services including a trivia night that aims to provide education about HIV as well as accessible testing.
“HIV testing should be available to anyone, and it should be destigmatized and really seen as a routine part of health care, and providers should be able to have that conversation in a comfortable way no matter what their [patient’s] age or their gender or their sexual orientation is,” said Lutz, who is passionate about equity in HIV care.
She said: “[W]hether I’m a straight woman who’s 65 or, you know, a young gay man, I should be able to have an open conversation with my provider about what kind of sex I’m having.”
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