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Berrien officials: HIV cases decline

Published 10:57am Thursday, February 25, 2010

By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star

Berrien County may rank fourth in Michigan in HIV prevalence (number of cases per 100,000 people), but the number of new cases has significantly decreased since 2000, according to the January Michigan Department of Community Health quarterly report.
The Niles Daily Star reported Monday that Berrien ranked third in HIV prevalence, but new statistics from the Berrien County Health Department rank the county fourth behind Wayne, Ingham and Kent counties.

Berrien County had 22 new reported cases of HIV in 2000 and 2001 and steadily decreased to only seven in 2009.

Melissa Hammer, HIV prevention specialist at the Berrien County Health Department, credits this trend to education.

“Knowledge is power,” Hammer said. “As long as people keep talking and people get out in the field and talk to groups at risk and they talk to their families, the trend will continue.”

Hammer said the health department has issued public service announcements, printed columns in local newspapers and done radio interviews to get the word out about getting tested and practicing healthy sexual behaviors.

While the number of new diagnoses have decreased in the county, the prevalence (number of people living with HIV) has increased every year in that same time frame.
Nicki Britten, epidemiologist for the health department, said the reason for the increase in HIV prevalence is people who already have the disease are living longer.

“It’s becoming more of a chronic condition,” Britten said. “It’s becoming a little bit more manageable with new medications.”

Hammer said early detection is also crucial in HIV patients living longer and healthier lives.

“If they are in contact with the virus, it would register on a test within one and a half or two months usually,” Hammer said. “The earlier you can detect this, the longer and better off they will be.”

Willie Mitchell of Community AIDS Resource and Educational Services (C.A.R.E.S.) in Benton Harbor still thinks there is a long way to go in combating the AIDS issue in the area and in the state.

“The theory is for every confirmed case of HIV, there are another five people walking around with it not knowing they have it,” Mitchell said. “The key is for everybody who has never tested to get tested. It’s confidential and it’s a free service.”

The Berrien County Health Department offers free testing at its Niles location on Wednesdays between 9 and 11 a.m. by appointment. C.A.R.E.S. offers free walk-in tests at its Benton Harbor location from 10 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

Even though dirty needles are the cause of only 6 percent of the 230 cases of HIV and AIDS in Berrien County, Mitchell believes a needle exchange program would be an effective program in limiting the number of new cases.

He also said C.A.R.E.S. is targeting educating the African American community in Berrien, which accounts for only 14 percent of the county’s population but 67 percent of the cases of HIV and AIDS.

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