On the morning of Nov. 30, Craig Webb will be raising a lot of red flags. Two thousand of them, to be exact.

Webb, manager of the Ventura County Public Health (VCPH) HIV/AIDS program, and his team plan to place these flags on the lawn of the Ventura County Government Center as a reminder of the increasing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Each flag represents a Ventura County resident who, since 1983, has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

“We’re hoping to get people out to get tested to find out what their HIV results are,” said Webb, “because only 1 in 5 people who are infected with HIV know their status.”

More worrisome still is the fact that, in the U.S., someone new is infected every 9.5 minutes.

The flags, printed with “I Know, Do You?” are an effort to raise awareness about the need to get tested. VCPH is sponsoring the display, which has been timed to coincide with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

The global health day, held annually since 1988 and hosted by the National Aids Trust (NAT), is the first ever of its kind. While the primary goal of World AIDS Day is to raise awareness worldwide, it also provides an opportunity to show support for people living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from the disease.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 50,000 people become infected with HIV in the U.S. each year. Nationally, about 1.2 million people are living with HIV, but roughly 240,000 have no idea they are positive, simply because they haven’t been tested.

Getting tested, as both VCPH and the CDC agree, is the first and most important step in fighting the spread of HIV. Only those who know their positive status can begin to receive the care they need. Without proper medical care, HIV leads to AIDS and early death.

“Over half the new HIV infections are caused by people who do not know they are HIV positive,” said Webb. “To reduce the spread of HIV, people need to get tested and into medical care. Without medical care, HIV can lead to AIDS.”

But there is hope for those who test positive for HIV.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can lower the level of virus in the body and help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. ART also lowers the chances of passing HIV on to others. Advances in medical care, along with ART, have helped reduce the number of people with HIV who get AIDS.

More than 16,000 people with AIDS, however, die each year. This is partly because only 28 percent of those who know their positive status are getting the care and information they need to manage the disease and keep the virus under control.

VCPH aims to remedy this, at least locally.

The agency is one of the main providers of free HIV/AIDS testing and comprehensive case management within Ventura County. In 2011, it administered more than 1,450 20-minute HIV rapid tests free of charge, thanks to a prevention grant from the California Department of Public Health Services, Office of AIDS.

In an effort to maximize its effectiveness, the VCPH has taken a nod from President Barack Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, aligning its HIV/AIDS program to address four fundamental goals outlined by the Office of National AIDS Policy. These goals are to minimize the number of new HIV infections; maximize the number of people with HIV who access appropriate care, treatment, support and prevention services; reduce HIV/AIDS-related disparities; and, ultimately, reduce deaths due to HIV infection.

The comprehensive implementation of these goals is vital to arresting the spread of what the president has called a “pandemic.”

According to the VCPH’s HIV CARE Program Service Delivery Plan for 2011-2013, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people are currently living with HIV or AIDS within Ventura County. There have been 60 to 90 new HIV cases, annually, over the past three years.

One of the contributing factors to this increase is the county’s proximity to Los Angeles County, where prevailing rates are among the highest in the nation. The CDC’s most recent HIV Surveillance Report lists California as the state with the highest number of reported AIDS diagnoses in 2010.

Despite this alarming statistic, California has seen a steady decrease in AIDS cases over the past 10 years. In 1992, more than 12,000 diagnoses were reported. This number has fallen dramatically, to 4,000 or less, since 2005. Mortality rates due to AIDS have also declined, with the California Department of Health reporting a nearly 83 percent decrease over a 10 year period.

A combination of readily accessible testing, education and treatment for HIV — such as those provided by Webb and his team at the VCPH HIV/AIDS Program — have had a tremendous impact on arresting the spread of the disease and improving the lives of those already diagnosed.   

For more information on Ventura County Public Health’s HIV/AIDS program, go to www.vchca.org/ph/hiv; or to schedule an appointment for an HIV test, call 981-5221.