A new tool in Georgia’s fight against HIV/AIDS received national attention Monday when it was featured during the White House’s observance of World AIDS Day.
AIDSVu is a free, online interactive mapping system that lets users explore the HIV epidemic geographically. Now, the tool has been made even stronger. Using data supplied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by state health departments, including Georgia, users can now view how HIV impacts Atlanta and other major U.S. cities by ZIP code. The tool, created by Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, allows organizations to “intensify HIV prevention efforts in the communities with the highest burden,” according to the 2013 report on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
Jane Kelly, M.D., DPH’s HIV epidemiology section director, said having such specific geographic data is invaluable for public health efforts to provide HIV education, prevention and care.
“When you look at HIV this way, certain patterns jump out at you that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” she said. “If you’re an organization trying to do outreach and HIV prevention, you can more easily identify the areas and populations that need you.”
The ZIP code tool uses DPH data, as does AIDSVu’s other maps of Georgia counties and the state as a whole. For many years, DPH has calculated the total burden of HIV and AIDS in the state and how many people in certain demographic groups – age, race, gender, etc. – are infected. But when it comes to preventing and treating HIV, those data can only do so much.
“It’s not enough to know the demographics of how many people are infected. You need to know their access to care, their level of engagement in care, whether they continue to get treatment and whether they achieve viral suppression,” a biological sign that the virus is under control, she said.
To paint this more nuanced picture of the disease, DPH introduced its HIV Care Continuum, a year-long snapshot of HIV/AIDS in Georgia that not only shows the number of people with HIV and new cases of the disease, but what happens to them once they are diagnosed. The first continuum was released in 2013 and showed that of the more than 46,000 Georgians living with HIV in 2011, 54 percent were engaged in care, 38 percent remained in care and 39 percent achieved viral suppression, a key factor in stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"We know that HIV treatment is prevention," said DPH Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D. "It is our hope that this new data will help us identify and link more Georgians living with HIV or AIDS to care."
Those living HIV who stay in an appropriate treatment regimen are 96 percent less likely to transmit the virus to someone else -- an efficacy rate even better than condoms.
“There isn’t just one solution for reaching our goal of viral suppression,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to focus on each of these areas to get us there.”
Kelly said combining Georgia’s HIV Care Continuum with the ZIP code-specific data from AIDSVu will help public health professionals ask questions that can make HIV education, prevention and treatment more effective. Why is it that young people are linked to care at the same rate as older people but are less likely to continue care? Why do residents of certain areas of Atlanta get their HIV diagnoses at very late stages of their disease?
“We don’t know the answers yet, but these tools finally point us to some of the right questions,” Kelly said.