HIV and AIDS first began getting national attention back in the 80’s. Back then the virus was commonly thought to be a death sentence – there was no known cure, and many people across America were dying from it. Health officials began researching the disease but despite medical advances, and years of educating the American public, people are still contracting – and spreading the virus.
Many South Dakotans live in small towns and rural communities and think of HIV as a disease that affects people in big cities like Miami or San Francisco, or in faraway countries like Africa. But state health officials say that’s not the case. They say the virus is alive and well here in South Dakota and people should be cautious.
Lon Kightlinger is the State Epidemiologist for the South Dakota Department of Health. He says the number of people in South Dakota getting infected with HIV is increasing.
“As of the end of last year we had four-hundred-eighty two people living with the HIV infection in South Dakota. Since the first of the year, now in 2013, we’ve had eighteen new people diagnosed and reported,” says Kightlinger.
Kightlinger says that before 2000 there was an average of twenty-two cases of HIV per year, but that number is rising.
“Now for the last ten years, the last decade, we’ve had an average of twenty-seven cases per year so it’s a slow increase in the number of cases that we’re seeing each year in South Dakota,” says Kightlinger.
Kightlinger says anybody can contract HIV, but there are some behaviors that increase the odds that a person will become infected.
“The people that are at highest risk are people that use illegal intravenous drugs – that means you’re shooting drugs – and you’re shooting them into your arm and you’re sharing your needle with somebody else – that’s high-risk. Also men who have sex with other men, that would be gay sex, people who have anonymous sex, and there’s getting to be more and more of that with people doing internet hook-ups, and then people who have multiple sex partners and they don’t know the HIV status of the other people that they’re having sex with,” says Kightlinger.
Kightlinger says that when people are infected with the HIV virus they can experience vague, flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches, and chills. Then the virus can often lie dormant for ten years or more and many people will have no symptoms at all. He says that even with no symptoms it is still possible to spread the virus.
“The sooner you know the sooner you can be starting treatment – even if you’re not feeling sick – it’s still good to start treatment and get the virus under control before it does make you sick,” says Kightlinger.
He says people are often surprised when they test positive because they haven’t been feeling ill. He says thats why it’s important to get tested periodically.
“Don’t be shy of getting tested – we all should know what our HIV status is. That’s a good thing to know. It’s a good thing to protect yourself and protect your partners as well,” says Kightlinger.
Kightlinger says there are multiple locations across South Dakota to get tested, and many locations do the test for free. He says everyone between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four should be tested – just to be sure.
Debbie Pack is the HIV program coordinator at Volunteers of America in Rapid City. She says her office offers testing. She says V.O.A’s mission is to reduce the risk of people that are currently infected with HIV of spreading the virus. She says she wants to increase awareness of HIV and re-educate South Dakotans about how not to get infected, as well as how to access local resources if you do test positive.
“We also offer peer mentoring. So one of our staff members who is already infected and he knows what it’s like to get used to the medications, he can talk with them and help them when they’re struggling with nausea or ‘I don’t know – I feel like I’m having a reaction to this or that,’ we can help them get on track,” says Pack.
Pack says that once you are infected with HIV you have it for life, and within twenty-four hours of contracting HIV it is possible to spread it. She says many people in the state don’t think HIV is a real concern unless they or someone they know has it.
“I would just say be safe, when it comes to relationships know who your partner is and have those conversations. Just me mindful that you can’t tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them – you have to talk with them about it,” says Pack.
Pack says early diagnosis, staying in touch with medical professionals, and taking all meds as prescribed is key to living a longer life with HIV. She says her office offers risk counseling, and also offers advice on how to discuss HIV among sexual partners.
With HIV infection numbers on the rise in South Dakota health officials say it is important to take precautions – that includes practicing safe sex, having those difficult conversations, and not shooting drugs.