The Howard Brown Health Halsted in Northalsted on March 28, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Black Chicagoans continue to make up the highest proportion of new HIV and AIDS cases even as overall infection rates decline, and health providers need more help tackling the barriers preventing people from seeking care, a local expert said.

HIV/AIDS awareness month has been commemorated in December since 1988. It encourages people “to unite globally to eliminate the disparities and inequities that create barriers to HIV testing, prevention and access to HIV care,” according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

HIV weakens a person’s immune system until they’re unable to fight off even minor illnesses. Left untreated, the virus causes AIDS, which is the final and most serious stage of an HIV infection, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

New HIV diagnoses in Chicago steadily decreased for decades until 2020 before ticking up slightly, according to a recent health department news release.

“The minimal increase in diagnoses between 2020 and 2021 is not unexpected and likely reflects disruptions in health care services and reporting due to the COVID pandemic, rather than a major change in disease patterns,” according to the news release. 

But the rate of reduction has been much slower within Black and Latino communities, experts said.

Black Chicagoans still represent the majority of new HIV diagnoses, making up about 47 percent of the city’s cases, data shows. And 57 percent of new AIDS diagnoses reported to the health department in 2021 were among Black Chicagoans — a percentage that’s remained about the same since 2018.

The hardest hit neighborhoods include North Lawndale, Washington Park, South Shore, West Englewood and Grand Crossing, data shows. 

Anu Hazra, physician and co-medical director at Howard Brown Health’s 55th Street clinic, said more government funding would help health care providers scale up education to combat the ongoing stigma surrounding the disease and tackle other reasons do not or cannot get treatment.

“We are really trying to assure people that they don’t have to be afraid to get tested because no matter what the result is, there’s an action plan that can keep you healthy,” Hazra said. 

HIV/AIDS is an “illness that’s very manageable with treatment,” akin to other chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, Hazra said.

“The epidemic has shifted drastically over the past 40 years,” Hazra said. “The actual management of HIV is probably one of the most simple things we can actually do in medicine, but it’s often times the stigma associated with the diagnosis or even just testing that remains the largest challenge.” 

Anu Hazra is a physician and co-medical director at Howard Brown Health’s 55th Street Clinic. Credit: Provided//Howard Brown Health

Like the COVID-19 pandemic and other health crises, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects marginalized communities in part because they “don’t always have easy access to culturally-competent health care, including comprehensive sexual health screening,” Hazra said. 

“A lot of this disparity is related to, not only the healthcare system but oftentimes, a lack of access to housing and safety,” Hazra said. “I don’t think there’s one singular thing that’s needed to help marginalized populations combat HIV/AIDS, but it’s more about increasing wraparound services that are needed to make sure people remain healthy.” 

Cook County receives federal funding for HIV/AIDS testing and treatment through a national initiative dedicated to ending the disease

However, Hazra said more state and federal resources are needed to address the challenges that prevent people from seeking this kind of healthcare, like housing insecurity and other symptoms of poverty. 

Hazra said Howard Brown is trying to partner with providers and community leaders in vulnerable communities who can help spur people to get tested, treated and continued long-term care.

Programs funded by Chicago’s public health department prioritize services for Black and Latino people, who are about 70 percent of the patients utilizing these programs, according to department officials.

“While that funding is great and all, it’s still important to recognize that even with the best testing and treatment in the world, a lot of other social determinants impact someone’s ability to receive care,” Hazra said. “Even with the best treatment in the world, if patients can’t access it, then it’s useless.” 

With treatment, someone diagnosed with HIV/AIDS “can live just as healthy and just as long as they would have without the virus,” Hazra said. People receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS are also safe from passing the disease along to their sexual partners. 

“People are aware of HIV, so now it’s about helping the public reframe how they think about it,” Hazra said. “It’s about making sure they understand HIV can certainly be a life-changing diagnosis, like diabetes or other chronic conditions, but it’s by no means a defining diagnosis or life-ending.” 

There are ways to access HIV/AIDS testing, prevention and treatment in the city, even if cost is a concern. Chicagoans can visit free HIV/AIDS and STI testing sites across the city, click here to see a list of locations. 

Howard Brown Health accepts all patients regardless of their ability to pay and connects them with federal programs that cover the cost of medication. To learn more about how to access low-cost care at Howard Brown Health, click here

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