HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Leaders with the Virginia Health Department say sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, and they want you to protect yourself.
A News 3 investigation dives into the latest numbers and speaks to those who have tested positive and want to share their stories.
Charles Kirtland said he has been HIV positive since March 2018. He's also the LGBT Life Center Board Chair. The group’s mission is to empower the LGBTQ communities and all people affected by HIV through improving health and wellness, strengthening families and communities and providing transformative education and advocacy.
Kirtland said when he learned he was positive it was disappointing news, but he said he knew he had engaged in risky behavior.
Experts say so many people engage in risky behavior.
Clay Porter is the outreach coordinator for the group Minority AIDS Support Services. He also knows what it’s like to test positive.
“The dangerous part was the stigma associated with it,” Porter said.
Porter believes that in order to break the stigma around HIV, more people need to talk about it openly and get tested. When he tested positive, Porter had an intense feeling of shame which led to a sense of self-denial.
Both men said they got treatment and now take a daily pill that prevents them from exposing others to the virus.
“There are definitely obstacles with education and the stigma with HIV for people to understand that it’s not a death sentence,” Kirtland said.
Now their mission is to speak out and stop others from contracting a very preventable virus by using things like condoms and taking PReP, a drug that if taken daily can prevent you from getting HIV.
The CDC says pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is medicine taken to prevent getting HIV. PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV when taken as prescribed. According to the CDC, it reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% and reduces the risk of getting HIV from injection drug use by at least 74%.
According to HIV.gov, there is also PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis — a short course of HIV medicines taken very soon after a possible exposure to HIV to prevent the virus from taking hold in your body. You must start it within 72 hours (3 days) after a possible exposure to HIV, or it won’t work.
“We kind of take for granted our health and think we’re invincible," Kirtland said. "When you get a reality check, it kind of wakes you up a little bit. You don’t have to have that reality check, especially when someone’s already lived it for you. Take their advice and get tested. Get on PReP, wear condoms. Do the right things."
Leaders at the LGBT Life Center told News 3 they’ve seen 20 HIV cases in the last six months.
Robyn Wilson, the LGBT Life Center's prevention manager, said that is extremely high.
The News 3 I-team reached out to the Virginia Department of Health for the latest numbers. The VDH said STI rates have increased statewide and nationally in the last several years and provided us with the following information:
Has the state seen any trends in STIs in recent years?
STI rates have increased in the past several years, as well as nationally. In the last five years (2017 to 2021), rates of gonorrhea increased by 16% and TES (Total Early Syphilis) cases by 21.5%. In 2021, more than 40,000 reported cases of chlamydia were in Virginia, a 15% decrease from 2019, but still a 2.5% increase from 2016. Because chlamydial infections are usually asymptomatic and identified through screening (testing when the patient doesn't have any symptoms), the decrease in reported chlamydia cases is likely due to decreased STI screening and underdiagnosis during the pandemic, rather than a reduction in new infections.
How has COVID impacted the transmission of STIs since March 2020?
In Virginia, reported cases of STIs decreased during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 before rebounding by the end of the year. Reduced availability of testing opportunities, especially screening opportunities for asymptomatic patients, likely resulted in STIs being underdiagnosed, which likely contributed to increased transmission.
Has the state seen an increase in syphilis cases?
Yes, cases of syphilis have increased in Virginia for the past several years, just as they have at the national level. Early syphilis increased 21.5% in Virginia in 2021 compared to 2017 (1,407 cases, 16.4 cases per 100,000 population in 2021).
Has the Eastern District in Virginia seen an increase in syphilis cases?
Yes. Early syphilis increased 16.5% in the Eastern Region of Virginia in 2021 compared to 2017 (511 cases, 27.4 cases per 100,000 population in 2021).
Key points for the public:
Many STIs don't have symptoms, so it's important to get tested if sexually active and treated with the correct medication if you are positive for a STI. Talk to your healthcare provider about how often you should get tested according to the CDC recommendations.
HIV and Hepatitis Prevention Director Felencia H. McGee, DHA, CHES, CMC provided the following responses for HIV:
Has the state seen any trends in HIV in recent years?
There were 2,293 new HIV diagnoses from 2019 to 2021 with 852 in 2019, 631 in 2020 and 810 in 2021.
There were 123 new HIV diagnoses through June 15, 2022, in the Eastern region which represents 35% of new diagnoses this year; there were 258 new HIV diagnoses in 2021 in the Eastern region, representing 32% of diagnoses for 2021. As Oana noted, HIV data is also not closed yet for 2022 so we expect those numbers to change.
How has COVID impacted the transmission of HIV and STIs since March 2020?
COVID shifted the way we provided HIV prevention services in Virginia. A large percentage of our HIV prevention activities are carried out by community-based organizations and the local health districts. Due to closures, social distancing requirements, and staff deployed to the COVID-19 response, there was a decrease in HIV testing because people weren't able to easily access the services. However, this change provided an opportunity for us to expand other HIV prevention programs such as our in-home HIV testing program. With this program, Virginia and Maryland residents are able to request a test that they perform completely at home and can read the results in about 20 minutes.
Do you have information on how people can order at-home HIV kits? Who is eligible?
The VDH HIV self-testing program is available to cisgender men and transgender people ages 17 and up who currently live in Virginia or Maryland. You can request a test through this program once every 90 days at this link. If you have questions about VDH's Home Testing program, contact Bryan Collins, Community HIV Testing Coordinator at (804) 864-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Key points for the public:
If you want to be tested for HIV, there is no wrong door in Virginia. There are several options to get tested such as your doctor, community-based organizations, clinics, and even pharmacies. Ultimately the goal is for everyone to know their HIV status. You can also take it a step further to reduce your risk of getting HIV by getting on PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis, which is a medication used to prevent HIV. If you are living with HIV, continue to take your medications and attend follow-up appointments with your doctor to maintain an undetectable viral load. When you maintain an undetectable viral load, you do not transmit the virus. For more information about HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, or PrEP, you can contact our Disease Prevention Hotline at 1-800-533-4148.
“We are seeing spikes when we’re talking about HIV in the black, African-American community, unfortunately, especially men of color who identify as gay or bisexual," Wilson said. “I think the most important thing is for people to come in and know their status. A lot of times that is the biggest fear that we see is people are reluctant to come in just to take the test.”
Getting tested and knowing your sexual health can help prevent the spread of some of these infections.
“Our test is a one-minute test for HIV. They would know that result within one minute of taking the test, that’s how fast our test technology is,” Wilson said.
She said there are medications to prevent HIV like PREP and treat it plus testing is free at the Life Center.
“There are folks that are testing positive are all around us, and we certainly need to love them and prevent other folks from testing positive by eliminating the stigma and connecting them to the myriad of resources that are in this community, to prevent and protect folks,” Porter said.
National HIV Testing Day is on June 27.
The links below have resources and information on where you can get tested to know your status: