The number of new HIV infections reported in D.C. in 2019 declined by 16 percent from 2018, the largest decline over the previous five years, indicating the city’s HIV prevention efforts are moving closer to achieving Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal of ending the AIDS epidemic in the nation’s capital, according to a report released last week by the D.C. Department of Health.
The 2019 HIV data, which also show the city has met the mayor’s goal of ensuring that 90 percent of city residents with HIV know their HIV status by 2020, were released on Aug. 20 as part of the health department’s annual 2019 HIV, Sexually Transmitted Disease, Hepatitis, and Tuberculous Epidemiology and Surveillance Report.
The report shows the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases in D.C. decreased from 335 in 2018 to 282 in 2019, a 16 percent drop. The report notes that the 2019 figure of 282 new HIV cases represents a 79 percent decline from the 1,374 new cases reported in 2007.
DOH officials have said the decline in new cases appeared to have leveled off and reached a plateau between 2015 and 2018 when the number of new cases remained relatively stable. From 2015 to 2016, the new cases went from 399 to 379, a 5 percent decrease. The number of new cases from 2016 to 2017 dropped from 379 to 371, a decline of just 2 percent.
The new cases from 2017 to 2018 went from 371 to 335, a 9 percent decrease, the DOH report shows.
According to DOH officials, including DOH Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the 16 percent decline from 2018 to 2019 is an indication that stepped up efforts are working to encourage people to seek out the HIV prevention drug known as PrEP and for people who are HIV positive to become virally suppressed through medication that’s 99 percent effective in preventing transmission of the virus to someone else.
The report released last week says that among the D.C. residents newly diagnosed with HIV in 2019, 59 percent were “virally suppressed” with medication within 90 days of their diagnosis. It says that was an improvement from the 45 percent that were virally suppressed within 90 days after diagnosis in 2018.
“However, this indicates that not enough people are getting on HIV treatment timely to attain viral suppression,” a DOH statement accompanying the release of the report says.
DOH Officials said HIV data for 2020 will not be released until August of 2021. But the officials nevertheless disclosed they observed a downward change in the number of people being tested for HIV from 2019 to the first half of 2020.
Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director for DOH’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Administration, told the Washington Blade that DOH has found that fewer people in D.C. in 2020 have been tested for HIV compared to this time last year.
Kharfen said restrictions and concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic are believed to be the main reason fewer D.C. residents are showing up this year at HIV testing sites offered by DOH, private community clinics, or doctors’ offices. He said DOH has responded to this development by offering free home HIV test kits to anyone who requests them by contacting DOH online or by phone.
Kharfen said the free test kits can be obtained through a special DOH website at: getcheckeddc.org.
“D.C. Health recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way D.C. residents obtain medical care and other services,” Nesbitt said in the DOH statement. “We are expanding telehealth options and home-based testing to give residents the opportunity to take charge of their health,” she said.
The 2019 DOH report includes these additional findings:
• There are 12,408 current D.C. residents, or 1.8 percent of the population, who are living with HIV. Black and Latino residents with HIV exceeded 1 percent of their respective populations, with Black residents disproportionately impacted at 2.8 percent.
• There were just two babies born with HIV in D.C. in 2019.
• “Men who have sex with men and heterosexual contact are the two leading modes of transmission reported among newly diagnosed and identified HIV cases.”
• More than half of people living with HIV in D.C. are 50 years old and older. Young people ages 13 to 24 represent nearly 20 percent of new HIV diagnoses between 2015 and 2019. The number of “new HIV cases among young people between the ages of 20-24 remained level for the past three years.”
• The number of “newly diagnosed HIV cases attributable to injection drug use decreased by 99 percent from 150 cases in 2007, prior to the scale up of D.C.’s needle exchange program, to 2 cases in 2019.
• In 2019, there were 9,337 cases of chlamydia, 4,374 cases of gonorrhea, and 297 cases of primary and secondary cases of syphilis reported in D.C.
• There were 1,099 people with newly reported hepatitis C in D.C. in 2019.
• There were 24 cases of newly reported tuberculosis in D.C. in 2019, a 33 percent decline from the 36 newly reported cases in 2018.
“Our partnerships with the community have continued to yield promising results to both stem and reduce new HIV cases, while also delivering better and more efficient treatment to residents living with HIV,” Mayor Bowser said in the DOH statement.
“Our goal of ending the HIV epidemic in D.C. is not yet done, and we will continue to work to ensure equity in services, reduce stigma as an access barrier, making testing easier, support needle exchange, and keep people HIV negative,” the mayor said.
Jewel Addy, a spokesperson for Whitman-Walker Health, one of D.C.’s largest private health centers that provides HIV and other medical services for the LGBTQ community, said Whitman-Walker saw a 63 percent decline in its HIV testing between January and July of this year compared to that same period in 2019.
Addy said Whitman-Walker has seen about a 62 percent decline during that same period in the number of sexually transmitted infections testing it has offered at its various offices. Whitman-Walker discontinued in-person office visits at most of its locations except for COVID-19 tests in the past several months, but Addy said in-person visits have been resumed for HIV and COVID testing in several of Whitman-Walker’s offices this summer.