HIV and AIDS has long reached epidemic status in the U.S., notably right here in San Diego. Currently, more than one million Americans are living with HIV, and an estimated one in five people with HIV do not know their status. Recently, The Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University launched a groundbreaking study that includes new interactive online maps created by AIDSVu to show the latest HIV prevalence data for San Diego and 19 other U.S. cities by ZIP code or census tract. The interactive maps were launched on National HIV Testing Day as a part of the AIDSVu annual update. Led by Professor Patrick Sullivan, PhD, DVM, Professor of Epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, and the principal researcher for AIDSVu, this study includes the first ever interactive map displaying HIV cases in major cities across the United States. San Diego was included in the third round of cities.

“Our goal was to produce a project that will effectively relay data to the public,” said Sullivan. “That’s the way people understand and relate to data. The real motivation was to take the highest quality data and put it in a format accessible to people.” Sullivan, who has years of experience, expressed his deep appreciation within public investment to communicate the realities of HIV – the driving force behind the creation of the interactive map. “The map’s format is intuitive, and so with that, the goal is to provide a tool to help communicate what’s clear.”

San Diego was included in the third round of cities selected for the map. Sullivan explains the process of city selection as almost exclusively data driven. AIDSVu worked with state and city health departments, with all cities agreeing on a common way of calculating and measuring data. “In the beginning, the first version showed data at the state level, then the county level and then the city level.  This project comes from a national HIV strategy directive from the White House; through this, we gained specific guidance on how we should put the project together.”

Data on HIV prevalence at the ZIP code and census tract data were provided directly by state, county and city health departments, depending on the entity responsible for HIV surveillance, and were also compiled by Rollins researchers. The project is guided by an Advisory Committee and a Technical Advisory Group with representatives from federal agencies, state health departments and non-governmental organizations working in HIV prevention, care and research. Financial support for AIDSVu was provided to Emory University by Gilead Sciences, Inc.

The interactive maps pinpoint areas of the country where the rates of people living with an HIV diagnosis are the highest. Not surprisingly, urban areas led the way; however shockingly, many areas in the Southern United States joined these urban and Northeastern areas ranking among the highest cases.

San Diego continues to have a high HIV prevalence rate and while the epidemic remains, the tools now exist to help individuals know their status, and the interactive map allows cities to determine where testing, prevention and treatment are needed most.

Sullivan discussed the map in detail, and highlighted San Diego’s similarities to other major cities. “Nationwide, what really struck me is how consistently heavily the southeast [U.S.] is impacted. Those same high rates extend into rural areas and urban areas within these regions. San Diego’s map echoes this national trend; many cities showed a specific pattern where areas in central and downtown were heavily impacted, and then you start to see rings displaying the immediate areas of impact. The bull’s-eye pattern is seen in a lot within San Diego and other cities.”

Sullivan reiterated that the maps in San Diego illustrate the national trend.  He went on to say that racial disparities were consistent, and viewable through different selection tools. “San Diego at a visual level shows this disparity very clearly. When you break it down by race, it’s a bit of a stair-stepping, with whites, Latinos and Blacks. And when you view the map in this way, it tells a story about the epidemic that we can’t emphasize enough.” In San Diego, as well as other major cities, African American women continue to top the charts with the number of new HIV cases.

The clear purpose of the interactive maps is to inform and steer public health officials into a direction of action. “The hope is that these data are used to make access of treatment better,” said Sullivan. “Public health surveillance data is a way to get people to action. When you look at these maps, what can help people is being able to plot out where HIV testing or treatment facilities are located, and see where they match up.”

“In creating simplified, visible maps, we hope to reach members of general public that don’t keep up to date with clinical advances; to get them to look at the impact and get a sense of how this disease is affecting their communities,” said Sullivan. “We want individuals to become motivated to be open to get testing themselves.

“It’s an epidemic that is ongoing from coast to coast, north to south. My hope is to make people more receptive to something that’s a public health problem, and a reality for people everywhere. A better understanding will help.”

Sullivan reinforced the truth in the magnitude and impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; that the maps serve a greater purpose in inciting public health officials and the community at large to action. “This has started a conversation.”

The Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) is part of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The school houses six academic departments, 20 multidisciplinary centers – including an NIH-supported Center for AIDS Research – and over 160 full-time doctoral-level faculty members. For more information, please visit aidsvu.org.