New HIV infections in Washington and King County are at record low levels, thanks to expanded testing and treatment and drugs that can prevent infection

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Despite a booming population, new HIV diagnoses in King County are at their lowest level in nearly two decades, according to new data being released Friday — World Aids Day. Statewide, new cases are at their lowest levels in more than three decades.

In 2016, 440 people were diagnosed with HIV in Washington, about half of them in King County. That’s the lowest number in the state since 1985.

Between 2007 and 2016, the HIV diagnosis rate per 100,000 residents declined from eight to six per 100,000 statewide, a 25 percent decline, and from 15 to nine per 100,000 in King County, a 40 percent decline.

The data is part of Public Health – Seattle & King County’s 2017 Annual Epidemiology Report on HIV/AIDS.

Washington is working to cut the rate of new infections by half by 2020 — and that goal now seems within reach, said Tamara Jones, of the Washington Department of Health.

“In Washington, we have a positive outlook,” said Jones, a coordinator for the End AIDS Washington program. “We are sitting in a position where we are talking about ending the epidemic, ending the transmission of the disease and improving the health and quality of life for people living with the disease.”

Much of the progress in declining infections has stemmed from high rates of HIV testing, drugs that suppress the virus, and the use of preventative medication to block infection, says Matt Golden, a University of Washington professor of medicine and Public Health’s HIV/STD program director.

Antiretroviral medication has transformed HIV from a death sentence to a disease that people can manage for decades. And the use of a daily dose of antiretroviral drugs to prevent infection was approved in 2012.

Of 350 people receiving the preventative medication through a DOH program, none have become infected, Jones said.

Declining infection rates also reflect improved access to health care through expanded Medicaid coverage and the Affordable Care Act, said Dr. Joanne Stekler, an HIV/AIDS physician with the University of Washington.

In 2015, King County became the first urban county in the United States to reach the World Health Organization’s “90-90-90” objective: 90 percent of all persons infected with HIV know of their infection; 90 percent of that population is being treated, and 90 percent of those on antiretroviral therapy experience suppression of the virus.

Suppressing viral loads not only improves the health of people with HIV, but also reduces the odds they will pass the virus on to others. “That’s huge,” Jones said.

Still, more than 12,000 people in Washington — including nearly 7,000 in King County — are living with HIV, according to King County’s most recent surveillance report.

At the height of the epidemic in 1990, more than 1,000 people were diagnosed with new HIV infections in Washington, Jones said.