Nearly 600 Arizonans are diagnosed HIV positive each year, which is why creators of a new statewide resource tool - hivaz.org - are hoping to shine a light on a "forgotten" but preventable disease.
Nearly 15,000 Arizonans are living with HIV infection and about a quarter of them don't know they have it, state records show. While HIV infection is preventable, new diagnoses continue, particularly among people in younger age groups.
"People may be more timid to get tested these days because of the confidential name-based HIV reporting that now requires a name and contact information, which makes some people uncomfortable. Many don't want to get tested by their family practitioner, so they need to know the free or low-cost resources outside the doctor environment," said Kit Kloeckl, executive director at the Phoenix-based Aunt Rita's Foundation, the non-profit group that created the site.
Before 2008, anonymous testing was allowed but now all states require at least a name and contact information, which helps state health departments determine demographic data and maintain the accuracy of data collected, according to state health officials.
Hivaz.org is about connecting people to the services they need and providing them a central place to find information, Kloeckl said.
The online database links to basic information about HIV infection, low-cost care options, a calendar of statewide support groups and events, changes in legislation and links to local resources. Instead of bouncing around the Internet for HIV/AIDS information, all the information about local community resources is available for free at one site, officials with Aunt Rita's Foundation say.
"In cities like Tucson and Phoenix it's not as tough to find resources, but in rural areas or with people who are new to that state it is much more difficult," said Ethan Cox, director of development at Southern Arizona Aids Foundation.
Prevalence rates across the country and in Arizona on average are increasing, in part because infected individuals are living longer.
Urban areas like Maricopa County typically see a higher prevalence of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. It is also higher in some rural areas like Pinal County, which has a prison system and inmates are an at-risk group, Cox said.
As of June 2012, most HIV-positive cases were in urban counties that contain 75 percent of the state population, the Arizona Department of Health Services says.
"In Arizona, the incidence curve, or the trend in new cases, has gone up and down slightly over the decade, with a slight increase in the early 2000s and then slight decrease in the late 2000s. We also know that 20 to 30 percent of people don't self-report they have HIV/AIDS," said Rick DeStephens, HIV Surveillance program manager with the state health department.
"HIV has become the forgotten disease. We don't talk about prevention and testing enough, and it's not just a need in Arizona," Kloeckl.
The website hivaz.org hopes to encourage more people to get tested and educated on the recommendations for those diagnosed with HIV in Arizona, he says.
As of June 2012, there were 14,705 Arizonans living with HIV/AIDS, a case rate of roughly 230 cases per 100,000 people, the Arizona Department of Health says. As of 2009, the CDC estimates, 1 million people ages 13 and older are living with HIV infection.
Every year, about 50,000 new or emergent cases are reported nationwide. Federal data shows that in 2011, there were 18,000 newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection in people ages 29 and younger.
"Everyone has an HIV status and it's important to know what it is to protect themselves and the ones they care about. The website will hopefully help that become a reality," Cox said.
It's not just a particular segment of the population that needs to worry, everyone should get tested, Cox said.
The human immunodeficiency cirus destroys the body slowly over time by attacking specific cells that help to fight disease, which most often leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome or related infections, according to the CDC. No cure or vaccine exists, but HIV/AIDS can be treated and is manageable.
Newly infected individuals may have no AIDS conditions for months, years or potentially ever. An AIDS diagnosis happens only when the CD4 cell count is less than 200 or 14 percent, DeStephens says.
"Every county health department in Arizona has HIV prevention programs within it, people may just not know. And with hivaz.org more people will be aware of the resources they have," Cox said.
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Hivaz.org is a hub that provides quick access to testing locations, prevention and care services.
"HIV has become the forgotten disease. We don't talk about prevention and testing enough, and it's not just a need in Arizona."
executive director at the Phoenix-based Aunt Rita's Foundation
Courtney L'Ecuyer is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at 573-4117 or at firstname.lastname@example.org