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A health educator uses a syringe to take a drop of blood from a man’s finger while conducting an HIV test at the Whitman-Walker Health Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center September 27, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In what health officials call an “encouraging sign,” a new government report finds HIV is being diagnosed sooner after infection than it was just a few years ago.

According to the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the estimated time it takes to get an HIV diagnosis from time of infection is now three years. This is a significant improvement from 2011, when the median time was three years and seven months.

The seven-month improvement is a considerable decrease and suggests that the nation’s approach to HIV prevention efforts is paying off, officials say. 

“These findings are more encouraging signs that the tide continues to turn on our nation’s HIV epidemic,” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., said in a statement. “HIV is being diagnosed more quickly, the number of people who have the virus under control is up, and annual infections are down. So while we celebrate our progress, we pledge to work together to end this epidemic forever.”

An estimated 85 percent of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in 2014 knew their HIV status, the CDC says. About 40 percent of new cases were transmitted from people who didn’t know they had HIV.

Screening for HIV is considered an important first step to preventing further spread of the virus. Experts recommend that everyone should get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime, and people at higher risk for HIV — including sexually active gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men — should get tested at least once a year.

Once diagnosed, taking HIV medications as prescribed can allow people with the virus to live a long, healthy life and help protect their partners. The preventative drug regimen known as PrEP can also help people significantly reduce the risk of becoming infected. 

“Prompt diagnosis is prevention,” Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “Controlling HIV through treatment is a top national priority.”

Still, despite the progress seen in the report, too few people are getting tested. A multi-city study found that people who said that they did not get screened for HIV in the last year included:

  • 29 percent of gay and bisexual men,
  • 42 percent of people who inject drugs, and
  • 59 percent of heterosexuals at increased risk for HIV. 

The report also showed that seven out of 10 people at high risk for HIV who had not been tested within the past year had visited a health care provider during that time — a missed opportunity for doctors to test the individuals who need it most.

A quarter of people diagnosed with HIV in 2015 had lived with the virus for seven or more years without even knowing it, according to the CDC.

To help get those affected diagnosed sooner, the report calls for physicians to be vigilant about offering HIV testing to people at high risk.

“Every American can play a role by getting tested at least once and people who are high risk getting tested every year,” said Eugene McCray, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. 

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