The number of Chicagoans newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in 2020 has plunged to levels not seen since the 1980s, according to a new city report.
In Chicago, 627 people were newly diagnosed with HIV and 269 with AIDS in 2020, the lowest numbers since 1987 and 1985, respectively.
The Chicago Department of Public Health, which released the report, warned that numbers may not have been reported in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement from press that is proud of the progress the city has made in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
“It’s not just that HIV diagnoses are down, it’s that they’re down for black Chicagoans, white Chicagoans and Latino Chicagoans of all ages,” he said. “But we must remain focused on addressing disparities, knowing that more than half of new HIV diagnoses still occur in Black Chicagoans and that other (STDs) are on the rise, especially among young people.”
Approximately 55% of new HIV diagnoses and 57% of new AIDS diagnoses in 2020 were among black Chicagoans. The highest number of new HIV diagnoses was in Uptown, and the highest rate of new diagnoses was in Pullman.
John Peller, president and CEO of the AIDS Foundation Chicago, called the lower rates good news, though he also noted that overall, fewer people sought medical care in 2020 than in other years, which could skew the numbers.
“I think there’s very good news in this report overall, and we’re certainly seeing a continuation of the trends that we’ve seen in recent years with HIV cases declining,” Peller said. “But like so much else in the year 2020, I think there really needs to be a big asterisk next to these numbers.”
The new numbers come more than 40 years after AIDS emerged in the US AIDS is the last stage of HIV, which is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection.
In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report describing unusual infections in five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. At the end of that year, 337 cases of people with severe immune deficiency were reported in the US, according to HIV.gov.
By 1992, AIDS had become the leading cause of death among American men ages 25 to 44, and by 1995, half a million AIDS cases had been reported in the US.
For years, the disease was very often fatal. However, that changed with the development of a drug called antiretroviral therapy, which reduces the amount of HIV in the blood to undetectable levels.. Now, people who take the drug and have undetectable viral loads can live long lives and not spread the virus to others.
“Getting people on HIV treatment is not only great for their individual health, it’s also good for the health of the community and stopping new transmissions in the community,” Peller said.
Among people living with HIV in Chicago, 61% achieved viral suppression in 2020 while consistently taking HIV medications, an 11% increase from the previous year.
People can now also take medications to help prevent them from getting HIV, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
The new numbers come amid a statewide initiative called Getting to Zero Illinois that aims to end the HIV epidemic in Illinois by 2030. That initiative is coordinated by the Illinois and Chicago departments of public health and the Chicago AIDS Foundation. .
The goals of the initiative are to eliminate the transmission of HIV and to ensure that all people with HIV receive care.
There has already been progress, Peller said. Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill into law in June that will allow Illinois pharmacists to dispense PrEP and PEP medications without individual prescriptions. Also, this year the legislature appropriated $10 million to end the epidemic, and part of that will be used to secure an additional 340 housing units for people with HIV in the Chicago area, Peller said. People living with HIV can better manage their medications and conditions if they have housing, he said.
The Chicago Department of Public Health has spent $41 million annually since 2019 to end the epidemic.
According to the report, cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in Chicago also decreased in 2020, but that was likely due to reduced testing for the disease during the pandemic.