New HIV cases in Minnesota dipped slightly last year, but state health officials said they were troubled by sharp increases within several subgroups — young adults, minorities and intravenous drug users.
The state recorded 294 new HIV and AIDS cases last year, down from 306 in 2014, according to an annual surveillance report issued Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Although HIV cases have hovered at about 300 new infections each year since 2000, health officials said they are alarmed by the uptick within certain populations.
“We are seeing higher HIV infection rates in communities with limited access to HIV testing and prevention programs due to long-standing social, medical or income disadvantages,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger in a statement.
New cases among Minnesotans age 20 to 29 increased by 24 percent in 2015, the department said. Infections among intravenous drug users jumped 86 percent — with 26 new cases in 2015 — most often among white, non-Hispanic males under age 40.
The majority of cases overall occurred in the Twin Cities area, and they included sharply higher rates within communities of color and men who have sex with men. Men who have sex with men have been the most common risk factor in sexual transmission of HIV, accounting for roughly half of all new cases last year.
People of color also continue to be disproportionately affected, according to the report. Some 58 percent of newly reported HIV cases were among people of color, with African-born women accounting for more than half of the new cases for females.
The rise in HIV among intravenous drug users may reflect the recent increase in heroin use across Minnesota, but state officials can’t be certain, said Krissie Guerard, the Health Department’s HIV/STD section manager. The department uses U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking methods, which ask whether the person uses intravenous drugs, but not their drug of choice.
In 2009, the department reported just nine new HIV cases from needle drug users.
Overall, about 8,500 people in Minnesota are HIV positive, up from 5,233 in 2005. The department said 89 Minnesotans died from AIDS-related causes last year, down from a peak of 106 in 2009.
Linda Ewing, CEO of the Minnesota Aids Project, said in a statement Wednesday that state leaders have not supported sex education with a focus on HIV, especially for minorities. “In 2016, there is absolutely no reason to continue to see so many people infected with HIV,” Ewing said.
Sam Robertson, a risk reduction coordinator with the Aids Project, said financial support for education and harm-reduction programs, such as syringe exchanges, has lagged behind the need. “We have the knowledge to reduce HIV,” Robertson said. “We should be reducing those numbers by half.”
Noting the sharp increase in new cases among younger people, Robertson speculated that, because of improved treatments for AIDS, younger people may be less worried about contracting HIV than people were in the 1980s.
State health officials said the spread of HIV can be reduced if people who engage in risky behaviors undergo screenings, obtain HIV treatment and consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.
“Reducing the number of new HIV infections is a key public health goal, and sexually active individuals and people who inject drugs can help by getting tested and knowing their status,” Ehlinger said.
The Health Department funds 20 community programs for HIV prevention and testing. It recently announced plans for potential expansion of PrEP services, starting this summer.
PrEP is a daily pill for people who are HIV negative that can reduce the sexual transmission of the virus by 90 percent. Aside from mild side effects, the costs — which can reach around $1,200 per month — can be prohibitive for people even with health insurance, Robertson said.
Those seeking more information about HIV and PrEP can call the Aids Project’s AIDSLine at 1-800-248-2437.
Youssef Rddad is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.