The number of people living with HIV is declining in Massachusetts, even as it climbs across the U.S.
Massachusetts has about 20,000 residents who are HIV positive, a decline of about 41 percent from 2000, says Carl Sciortino, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, a Roxbury-based nonprofit founded in 1983, and now the largest group of its kind in New England.
Sciortino, who is himself HIV positive, says the state’s health and medical infrastructure has helped Massachusetts buck the national trend. It was ahead of the national curve in terms of insurance access for people living with HIV, as aggressive treatment is considered integral to preventing the spread of the disease.
And Massachusetts has run targeted programs for groups deemed to be at-risk for the disease: gay men, transgendered women, intravenous drug users.
Still, 700 state residents are diagnosed with the disease each year.
“What’s amazing is that we can get the number down to zero, how that’s possible now,” said Sciortino, 36, a Middlesex Democrat who resigned his office as a state legislator – a post he had held since 2005 – this past spring to lead the group.
He now says while there have been exciting developments in HIV treatment in recent years, there is always a need for more awareness. Earlier this year, federal authorities released the first comprehensive clinical guidelines for a pill – known as PrEP – that when taken consistently can reduce by up to 92 percent, the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk.
“People don’t even know it exists. It works. It is covered by insurance. We need to get the word out,” he said.
Then there’s “the Berlin patient,” who is believed to be the only known human to be cured of HIV.
“I am hopeful for a cure. I think it’s important to keep focus on that,” said Sciortino. “There’s one example that we can point to and say it’s possible. We have to keep working until it’s possible for everyone.”
While social stigmas may have softened since the 1980s and understanding of how the disease is transmitted has deepened, HIV is still seen as a shameful disease, said Sciortino. Many public schools lack comprehensive sex education, meaning more work needs to be done by groups like his to reach young people at risk of getting AIDS.
“There’s an assumption that you must have done something wrong,” he said. “That you didn’t do the quote unquote ‘right thing’ to protect yourself. So there’s a lot of judgment that goes along with getting the virus.”
On Monday, the Prudential Center will be among the landmarks around the world to be lit red, in an effort to raise awareness in the region and remember those who have died from the disease. Sciortino’s committee will be hosting a ceremony that is open to the public in the Pru’s Belvidere Arcade at 4 p.m.
“It’s still an issue, it’s still in our community and we will still have to work to do to spread information about where HIV is today, who is impacted and that we all have a stake,” said Sciortino.