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City, state join forces to combat HIV

The city’s Health Department offers PrEP at STI Specialty Clinics in Austin and Lake View. Staff are now being trained to make certain that all of the city’s STI Specialty Clinics are “equipped to prescribe” the drug along with “partners citywide.” | Photo by Google

Chicago has gone a long way toward reducing the spread of HIV.

In 2002, the number of newly diagnosed cases spiked at 1,850. Since 2013, it has been less than 1,000 a year. Less than half of those living with HIV are also “virally suppressed.” That means they’re less likely to transmit the virus.

Still there is room for improvement, particularly among African-Americans who accounted for 54 percent of all newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 2015.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel embraced an ambitious plan aimed at eliminating new diagnoses of HIV in Chicago and across the state over the next decade.

The partnership between the city and state Departments of Public Health, 10 community organizations and hospitals is appropriately called “Getting to Zero.”

It has two main goals: To increase the use of prevention medications among the most vulnerable to the disease and ensure that 70 percent of all people living with HIV receive the medication they need to reduce the “viral load” that officials said “significantly reduces the risk of transmission.”

The plan is patterned after similar efforts in San Francisco and the state of Washington.

By increasing distribution and daily use of PrEP, a pill that dramatically reduces the risk of becoming infected with HIV, and increasing “adherence to antiretroviral treatment among those living with HIV from 50 percent to 70 percent,” the hope is HIV in Chicago will someday reach a point where it can no longer sustain itself,” officials said.

“With the aid of strong community health care partnerships, new treatments and the increased availability of medication to vulnerable populations, we have a real chance at stopping the spread of HIV once and for all,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.

Currently, the city’s Health Department offers PrEP at STI Specialty Clinics in Austin and Lake View. Staff are now being trained to make certain that all of the city’s STI Specialty Clinics are “equipped to prescribe” the drug along with “partners citywide.”

Last year, the city invested $3 million in community partners to increase education and access to PrEP for communities at greatest risk. They include “gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men of color and transgender women.”

Black men who have sex with men currently account for 46 percent of new HIV infections among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, officials said.

Erik Glenn, executive director of Chicago’s Black Gay Men’s Caucus, said it’s a “moral imperative” that the city and state join forces on a plan to “capitalize on recent scientific advancements like PrEP and treatment as prevention.”

“Our state has made great strides in curbing HIV, but data telling us that one in two black gay men will contract HIV in their lifetime reminds us of how far we have yet to go,” Glenn was quoted as saying.

Jim Pickett, senior director of prevention advocacy and gay men’s health at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, noted that the campaign includes a “strong social marketing effort” to connect HIV-negative Chicagoans to PrEP services, HIV testing and other preventive resources. It’s known as PrEP4Love.

“If we are really going to `get to zero’ in Illinois, we have to improve PrEP awareness and access in Chicago and beyond for the communities who are most vulnerable to HIV,” Pickett was quoted as saying.

In addition to the city and state, partners in “Getting to Zero” include: the AIDS Foundation of Chicago; Alexian Brothers Housing and Health Alliance; the Center on Halsted; the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus; Howard Brown Health; the Lake County Health Department; Northwestern University; the University of Chicago and Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center.