Every year, about 39,000 people in the United States are  diagnosed with HIV. More than half of them live in just 48 of the more than 3,000 counties in the country, and Maricopa County is among them.

Equally disturbing is that the number of newly diagnosed HIV patients in Arizona is on the rise even while most states are remaining steady or seeing a decline in HIV cases, said Glen Spencer, executive director of Aunt Rita's Foundation, a Phoenix non-profit dedicated to eradicating HIV and AIDS.

In 2017, 768 people in Arizona were newly diagnosed with HIV. Seventy-three percent lived in Maricopa County. There were 570 new cases reported in 2015, and again, Maricopa County accounted for most of the cases.

The increase prompted Aunt Rita's Foundation to form a partnership with the Arizona Department of Health Services, Sonora Quest Laboratories, Walgreens and Albertsons/Safeway pharmacies.

Since Oct. 1, people over 18 who have not received an HIV test in the last year can have it done for free.

The Sonora Quest lab on La Cañada in Green Valley is a participating partner.

The sooner people can be tested, the sooner they can receive the treatment they need, Spencer said. 

According to Aunt Rita's, HIV is 100% preventable using condoms, a pre-exposure prophylaxis pill and effective treatment of people living with HIV.

"We know there are more than 18,000 people living in Arizona who have been identified as living with HIV, and because of a fairly reliable algorithm the CDC uses, we know that 15 percent of people in Arizona have HIV and don't know it," Spencer said.

That means 3,000 people have the disease but haven't been diagnosed because they're asymptomatic or they're ill, but haven't been tested yet for a variety of reasons, including that they don't believe they're at risk, Spencer said.

Some people go undiagnosed because they've not told their doctors they are at a higher risk of contracting the disease, he said.

Spencer pointed out people can go up to 10 years without showing symptoms of the illness.

The Arizona Department of Health Services would like to have 90% of all HIV positive persons in Arizona tested and this new program should help with that, Spencer said.

The CDC recommends that every U.S. adult be tested at least once for HIV, and people who are sexually active or sharing needles for injection drug use should be tested at least annually. At-risk individuals should be tested on a regular basis. 

In Arizona, 85% of new HIV infections result from men who have sex with men. Nationwide, they represent an estimated 26,000 new HIV infections per year.

In Pima COunty, 113 people were diagnosed with HIV in  2017; 61 of them were men who reported getting the disease through sex with another man. The rest didn't know how the disease was transmitted, had high-risk heterosexual sex, or used intravenous drugs.

At least half of the people in Arizona have never been tested, Spencer said. 

"The CDC's recommendation is that anyone who is sexually active should be tested because anyone who is sexually active is at risk," he said. "Even people who are married and think they are in a monogamous relationship should be tested. I've seen more married people test positive than I care to remember."

Although 40% of all new HIV infections in Arizona are among young persons between the ages of 13 and 29. Spencer said "it's not an uncommon thing" for people over the age of 50 to be diagnosed with HIV.

In the first three weeks of the program, Spencer said 200 people have requested vouchers. People who would like to be tested must visit GetTestedAZ.org, complete a request form and choose a testing location.

Sonora Quest Laboratories can give a confirmatory test result in three to four days. HIV tests at Walgreens and Albertsons/Safeway pharmacies is a 20-minute rapid test and results are delivered in person, and if positive they will refer to Aunt Rita’s Foundation to receive a voucher for a confirmatory test at Sonora Quest Laboratories.

A positive test results in mandatory reporting to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which will contact Aunt Rita’s Foundation to reach out to the client and help them connect them with service providers.

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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