HIV cases in southern Illinois reached the highest number in nearly a decade last year, with more than half the infections from the virus that causes AIDS reported in people 24 years old or younger, public health officials said.
Complacency in public education about the virus was cited as the main reason for the increase, according to officials.
The Southern Illinois HIV Care Connect office in Jackson County's health department, which tracks the data in 19 counties, said the region stretching from Mount Vernon to Cairo has averaged 14 to 15 new HIV cases a year. But that number jumped to 21 in 2012 and to 23 last year.
Given the prevalence of the disease among teenagers and young adults, Dr. Erica Kaufman — Southern Illinois Healthcare's infectious diseases specialist — said she believes "we are in a time when a lot of young people don't know about HIV."
"People know a bit about HIV, but they don't know the devastation of it," Kaufman said. "They don't know that it changes their lives."
Tony Wyatt, a 56-year-old Murphysboro man who has lived with HIV since 1994, said his outreach through Southern Illinois HIV Care Connect often has fallen on deaf ears in recent years.
"I saw (the HIV increase) unfolding about 15 years ago, mainly in the black community," Wyatt said. "I would knock on doors to try and educate people any way I could about HIV in the community and the doors would be shut in my face."
Said Kaufman: "I suspect (the trend) is going to continue, and the reason is that we don't have the public health push on HIV like we used to have. I think what we are seeing here are a lot of young people who do not know they are infected who are passing it on to other people."