Nebraska sees rise in new HIV cases, especially in rural areas, but cause unclear

By: - July 20, 2022 3:00 am
Medical form and stethoscope

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LINCOLN — Last year was a record-setting year for new HIV cases, especially in rural areas.

But state and local officials said they’re not sure whether that’s a reflection of an increase in new cases or a resumption in testing, which was suspended during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, or both.

A health advisory sent out in early July by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said 2021 saw the highest number of new HIV diagnoses since 2010. The 107 cases last year compared with an average of  81 cases per year during the past decade.

Cases doubled in rural areas

The number of new cases in rural areas of the state — those outside of Omaha, Sarpy County and Lincoln — nearly doubled and accounted for over 35% of new diagnoses, according to the DHHS.

Catalina Laguna, a case manager with the Nebraska Aids Project based in Kearney, said a combination of factors is driving the increase: more new residents to the state testing positive for HIV, increased awareness about getting tested for all sexually transmitted diseases, and a resumption in testing.

“After COVID, it’s been a really big thing,” Laguna said of getting tested. 

Jeff Powell, a spokesman for the Nebraska DHHS, said the state’s data does not indicate a conclusive reason for the increase.

Testing, Powell said, decreased during the pandemic, and it’s possible that the lifting of pandemic restrictions in 2021, and a resumption of testing, may have been a factor in the increase. 

Before the pandemic, from 2011 to 2020, he said, Nebraska had experienced a slow decline in the number of new HIV cases.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system and if untreated, can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Important to detect early

Laguna said it’s important to detect HIV early so that treatment, which is effective in controlling the virus, can begin.

She said some people are reluctant to get tested, fearing they’ll get bad news. But Laguna said it’s important to know your “status,” particularly when you have a new sex partner.

The state’s testing indicated that new cases were most prevalent among non-Hispanic white males and suggested that in rural areas, there was a delayed diagnosis of new HIV infections.

The DHHS, citing guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control, said persons between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine screening, and those at high risk should be tested at least yearly.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.