New cases of HIV in Minnesota crept upward for the third consecutive year in 2008, reaching 326 new infections, the Minnesota Department of Health reported today.

"The annual number of cases appears to be inching upward," said Peter Carr, director of the STD and HIV Section at the Health Department. The state averaged about 300 new cases per year starting in 2001, but has seen about 320 cases reported in each of the last three years, he said.

Public health officials are concerned about a sharp increase in the number of new cases reported among young men aged 13 to 24, many of whom are gay.

Last year 42 of the new cases were among young men, up from 18 in 2002. Officials say that men in this group were born after the HIV epidemic first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and may be less aware of the risks. Also, the advent of medications that have made HIV a chronic disease may lead many to believe that it is no longer the death sentence it once was, health experts say.

Men and women of color also continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. Men of color make up approximately 12 percent of the male population in Minnesota, but 39 percent of the infections diagnosed among men in 2008. Women of color make up approximately 11 percent of the state's female population, but 70 percent of new infections among women, the health department said.

"Socioeconomic status appears to be the most important factor in communities and neighborhoods where higher rates of HIV infection are seen," Carr said. "Limited incomes can mean lack of insurance, limited access to health care, poor housing situations, homelessness, social stigma."

Immigrants also accounted for a significant portion of new cases, continuing another long-term trend in Minnesota. The number of new HIV infections diagnosed among foreign-born people has steadily increased from 19 cases in 1990 to 62 cases in 2008. The number has largely been driven by the increase of cases among African-born people and those from Central and South America.

Among new HIV infections diagnosed in 2008, 19 percent were among foreign-born people. The disparity is especially extreme among African-born immigrants. They make up less than one percent of Minnesota's population, but accounted for 11 percent of new infections in 2008.

Since 1982 a total of 8,819 HIV/AIDS cases have been reported in Minnesota, including 2,976 people who have died.

An estimated 6,220 people are living with HIV in Minnesota, but health officials say they believe there are another 2,000 people who have HIV but don't know they are infected.

Minnesota has lower rates of AIDS, the disease that develops from HIV, than many other states. In 2007, AIDS rates ranged from 1 per 100,000 people in Vermont to 24.9 per 100,000 people in New York. Minnesota had the 11th-lowest rate, with 3.8 cases reported per 100,000 people.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394