UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — World AIDS Day was marked Friday with community programs focused on education and prevention, and remembrances for those who’ve died from the disease.
In Prince George’s County, there’s added urgency: the county has the highest number of new cases in the state of Maryland.
According to health officials, 7,500 people are living with HIV/AIDS in the county. Last year, 328 new cases were reported in Prince George’s County — down from 2015, when 404 new cases were recorded.
Among the newly reported cases, three out of every four are men, and nearly 40 percent of those cases involve men under the age of 30. County health officials said that 83 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS are people of color.
At a news conference marking World AIDS Day, County Executive Rushern Baker urged residents, especially young men, to get educated and to talk about HIV/AIDS with their partners.
“There is a way to prevent it, you need to be up front and be open with that, and take ownership of your own health,” he said.
Prince George’s County Health Officer Pamela Creekmur said the stigma around talking about sex and sexual practices is still a barrier to reducing the number of new HIV cases to zero.
“Sex is healthy, so we’re not telling people not to have sex. But we’re saying you have to consider safety,” she said.
Convincing men and women that using a condom every time they have sex is still an important message to help combat the spread of the virus. “Behavior is the hardest thing to change, and people for whatever reason, have unprotected sex.”
Creekmur said women could use female condoms.
“No one has to know that you’ve inserted a female condom. You have to take charge of your health and make those kind of decisions,” she said.
Noting that the number of new HIV cases is primarily among men who have male partners, Creekmur stressed the need to get past fears about stigma. She urged everyone to get tested, and know their HIV status.
“We are not judging, we are not making a moral statement. This is public health,” she said.
Onyeka Anaedozie, the deputy director for the Infectious Disease Prevention and Health Services Bureau at Maryland’s Department of Health, said there is still a lot of misinformation circulating about HIV and how the virus is transmitted.
“It’s ok to share plates with someone with HIV, it’s ok to share forks, cups and spoons as somebody with HIV. It’s ok to kiss someone with HIV. No one is going to transmit HIV to you in that way,” she said.
Anaedozie said that the perception that HIV/AIDS is no longer a public health threat is a problem.
“There are folks with HIV that are living longer and living healthier with HIV, and that’s great. But you can still get the virus,” she Anaedozie said.
And there is still a lot of shame and discomfort when it comes to talking about sex.
“Having honest and open conversations about sex, about your status, about fears – that will go a long way in ending the epidemic.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36 million people worldwide are living with HIV. Of those, the CDC reports that 19.5 million are receiving antiretroviral treatments. Globally, the rate of AIDS related deaths is down by 48 percent since 2005.
Nationally, the number of HIV cases diagnosed has dropped by 5 percent between 2011 and 2015, but new cases continue to be reported. Last year, 39,782 new cases were reported. And according to the CDC, among the 1.1 million people living with HIV, one in seven don’t know it.