HIV rates remain high for at-risk groups

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Quadir Johnson is volunteering at an HIV testing center. He’s also here to get tested.

“It’s always important to get checked just to keep track of my own safety and anyone I’m involved with safety,” Johnson said.

He’s passionate about spreading awareness because his uncle is HIV positive.

“He’s had it for a while now, and being his nephew I look up to him and I learn a lot from him in his struggle,” Johnson said.

There are more than 37,000 people living with HIV in New Jersey according to the most recent data available. Passaic, Essex, Union, Mercer and Atlantic Counties have the highest prevalence rates in the state.

“Newark has been one of our municipalities that has been hardest hit by the HIV epidemic in New Jersey,” said Assistant Commissioner, Division of HIV, STD and TB Services at the New Jersey Department of Health, Christopher Menschner.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, nearly 80,000 free, confidential, rapid HIV tests were administered in the state last year.

“That is very good. New Jersey is one of four states in the country where 10 percent or fewer people living with HIV don’t know their status,” Menschner said.

But even though trends show the state is doing well in terms of bringing down the number of cases, Menschner says disparities still exist.

“The incidents of new cases has decreased by 34 percent as a state overall. However, among young, gay, bisexual, minority men, rates of new cases have increased significantly in recent years,” he said.

Men of color have been especially affected and they makeup 61 percent of all infections among men who have sex with men. It breaks down to 37 percent African-American and 24 percent Hispanic.

To put it into perspective, New Jersey ranks seventh in the country in terms of the number of African-Americans living with HIV/AIDS. One in 64 African-Americans in the state is living with HIV/AIDS compared to 1 in 661 non-Hispanic whites.

“Obviously these disparities are unacceptable to us at the Department of Public Health and we’re taking serious action to address them,” Menschner said.

One step the department has taken is investing in the development of dozens of PrEP counselors around the state.

“PrEP essentially is a single pill, a medication that someone can take once a day under the care of a physician and after being on it for a period of time that person is no longer able to contract the HIV virus,” Menchner said.

This facility’s goal is to educate the public about this type of medication and the overall importance of getting tested.

“We do have an LGBT youth drop-in center that works specifically to try and work on HIV prevention,” said chief executive officer of the North Jersey Community Outreach Initiative, Brian McGovern.

“I’m part of the core group of Project WOW, and what that does is it help the youth that comes here and directs them to different services,” Johnson said.

Outside the center, Quadir and another volunteer were not surprised to learn that most of the new positive cases are LGBT youth.

“Especially around this generation, everyone is about fun and casual things. Nothing’s concrete anymore and nobody thinks about the long term,” Johnson said.

They both stressed the importance of knowing your status to take appropriate steps. Johnson says his uncle reminds him, and he’s hoping to spread that message.