Today is National HIV Testing Day, and St. Louis County is working with community partners to share the message about the importance of getting tested, as well as treatment options that can be successful for anyone who tests positive.
St. Louis County - specifically Duluth and a 30-mile radius around it - has been experiencing an outbreak of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) since 2019. Prior to that, the county saw between zero to five newly infected individuals in a year. However there have been 37 individuals newly confirmed to be infected in the last five years. Of those, 27 are in Duluth and 10 are in the surrounding region.
HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Without treatment, HIV attacks and weakens the immune system, which makes people living with HIV vulnerable to a variety of infections and some cancers. While there is no vaccine or cure for HIV, treatment is so effective that people living with HIV can live a long and healthy life. When taken as prescribed, medication can lower the levels of HIV in the body to an undetectable level, and when HIV is undetectable it’s also untrasmittable to sex partners. There are also medications available that can prevent someone from acquiring the virus if they are at risk.
With grant funding from the Minnesota Department of Health, St. Louis County Public Health is partnering with the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) and Fond du Lac Human Services to educate people at risk of catching or spreading the disease, as well as to help destigmatize the disease.
"H is for Human" is the headline that serves as a powerful reminder of what's at stake, and that every life is worth protecting. Through messages on buses, billboards, a website and social media, the campaign emphasizes the importance and ease of getting tested, and the treatment options available. The ads feature a painting by Ely artist Shaun Chosa. The painting is titled "“Zhaabwii,” the Ojibwe word for survivor.
"This is about reaching human beings and reminding them they matter and there is hope," said Rillis Eklund, St. Louis County Public Health Nurse. "We are grateful to work with community partners who can better help us educate people about preventing infection and protecting themselves, and that help is available."
"AICHO is very excited to partner with St. Louis County Public Health and Fond du Lac Human Services on this project," said Sasheen Goslin, Health Equity Director at AICHO. "We are stronger together and we hope to bring greater awareness to the HIV outbreak in our area. Miigwech to Shaun Chosa for partnering with us on this incredible project!"
The campaign's website is stopHIVnorthland.org. Representatives from St. Louis County Public Health, AICHO and Fond du Lac Human Services will have informational booths set up at numerous community events throughout the summer.