HIV/AIDS — A Side Effect of NJ’s Heroin Epidemic?
The statistics show the number of individuals diagnosed with, and killed by, HIV/AIDS has dropped significantly over the years in the Garden State.
Would the picture be even brighter if we weren't grappling with an opioid crisis?
"It's not just the needles. It's then the sexual activity that happens with the drug use," said Mark Anderson, executive director of Buddies of New Jersey, an organization dedicated to providing support, education and services to people affected by HIV/AIDS in Bergen and Passaic counties.
Of the seven new HIV/AIDS cases Buddies diagnosed in 2017, five are linked to drug use, Anderson noted.
"The anticipation, especially in North Jersey as we've had such a spike in opioid use, we do expect a corresponding uptick in HIV diagnoses," Anderson said.
About 1,500 New Jersey residents died of an opioid overdose in 2015 — the most recent data available — and it's expected the body count will top 2,000 when 2016's numbers are finalized.
The latest figures from the state health department show injection drug use is the transmission cause for 17 percent of New Jersey residents currently living with HIV/AIDS. Heterosexual contact is the cause for 39 percent of cases, and male-to-male sexual contact 28 percent.
Injection drug use is the top reason for New Jersey's HIV/AIDS cases overall, going back decades.
State Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, called New Jersey's needle exchange programs "one of the most important public health initiatives" adopted in years, suggesting they're preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C among those sharing needles.
Jay Lassiter, a former intravenous drug user, said the needle exchange programs in Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson have served nearly 22,000 individuals since getting the green light more than a decade ago.
Gov. Chris Christie in 2016 signed into law legislation that allows any New Jersey municipality to open a needle exchange. Since then, none have come online.
How to 'end AIDS'
The potential impact of increased drug use on New Jersey's incidence of HIV/AIDS could be minimized if those heavily involved in drugs and sexual activity were more aware and proactive, according to Anderson.
"The way that we can end AIDS is fairly simple — number one, get everyone tested," Anderson said. "Early detection is key."
The medication available today for HIV/AIDS sufferers can get the illness down to a point at it which it's no longer transmittable to others, he said.
"If you’re out there using drugs or overdoing it with alcohol, if you’re putting yourself at risk by not using protection, get yourself tested as often as quarterly — at least twice a year," Anderson said.
The second part of the "end AIDS" equation — getting "high-risk negative individuals" on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), daily medication that can reduce one's chances of contracting the virus, Anderson said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by 90 percent. It trims the risk from drug-injection by more than 70 percent.