Local people with the virus have traditionally been infected in a bigger city and moved to the region after diagnosis because of family ties, access to care and a state program that helps people afford expensive antiviral drugs, said Dr. Edward Kompare, an internal medicine doctor at San Juan Health Partners who treats about 35 patients who are living with the virus.
Thursday was World AIDS Day. A day set aside to remember the 30 million people who have died from the pandemic and support those living with the virus. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the original AIDS diagnosis, said Mark Lewis, a rural case manager for New Mexico AIDS Services in Farmington.
In three decades, AIDS went from a death sentence to a chronic condition more like diabetes, Kompare said. But despite medical advancements, there is still reason to be concerned.
Doctors noticed in recent years there are an alarming number of people who are contracting the virus in northwest New Mexico, especially in American Indian border towns, for the first time. And advocates for AIDS patients said there is still a stigma associated with the disease that needs to be addressed.
Two doctors treat all San Juan County HIV and AIDS patients. Kompare has a mixed-race clients list that resides off the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation. Dr. Colin McCreight recently started treating HIV and AIDS patients in Shiprock for Indian Health Services.
Kompare moved to Farmington in 1990 and started treating HIV and AIDS patients. His patients died within two years.
"I remember those days quite well because you were watching young people deteriorate in front of your eyes," he said.
HIV, which causes AIDS, is a virus that attacks a person's immune system. It makes patients susceptible to a collection of deadly medical infections and complications.
AIDS medications attack the virus and are successful in suppressing it, Kompare said. However, the benefits of medication were originally short lived because the virus mutates quickly and would become drug resistant.
"AIDS is a very sloppy virus," he said.
In the last 10 years, Kompare said doctors started using a cocktail of at least three antiviral drugs that better attacks mutations of the virus.
The result of the improvements to medication: The lifespan for a person with the virus who is receiving medication is now late 60s, about 10 years younger than a normal person. And the drugs are making it less likely for people with the virus to spread it, he said.
There are 188 people living with HIV or AIDS in northwest New Mexico, which includes San Juan, McKinley, Sandoval, Cibola and Valencia County, according to health department statistics.
About 87 percent of AIDS patients are male. The most common way people contract the virus is by having sex with a man.
Parts of the Navajo Nation are disproportionately seeing an increase in new AIDS patients, Kompare said.
There are 264 people living with AIDS on the Navajo Nation, said Philene S. Herrera, a health program manager for the Navajo Nation Division of Health.
In 2010, the Gallup and Shiprock areas had the highest number of new cases at 13 and six, respectively, she said.
The are likely two reason why those communities had the highest increase in new AIDS and HIV cases, she said. As border towns, residents of those communities have access to alcohol which health officials believe increases the odds of risky behavior, like unprotected sex.
Kompare said he sees patients with public and private insurance. Many AIDS patients in the state are part of the Ryan White Program, which is a state and federal program that gives funds to patients with HIV and AIDS to purchase health insurance, Lewis said.
In addition to seeing doctors every three to six months depending on how a patient responds to medication, Kompare said patients often also see case workers and counselors.
"Treatment gets quite involved," Kompare said. "It's not passing out a pill. It's a whole spectrum of things to make sure patients stay relatively healthy."
About 15 people gathered at New Mexico AIDS Services in Farmington Thursday night for an annual remembrance vigil for people who had died of the disease.
The Cardon family, of Farmington, has been attending the vigil since Margie Cardon's brother, Art, died of the disease in 1992 when he was 32. The family attended Thursday's vigil to remember Art and advocate to reduce the stigma associated with the disease and raise awareness about testing, Margie said.
"Remembering (my uncle) on World AIDS Day is almost a stronger memory than the memories of when I was with him," Shane Cardon, a 20-year-old engineering major at San Juan College, said. "Memorial Day is remembering all you have lost. But I only have one family member who died of AIDS."
Health care workers said a crucial aspect to AIDS prevention is reducing prejudice associated with the virus.
"We don't talk about the prejudice that keeps people isolated and keeps them from seeking care," said Melissa Charlie, the director of nursing services for the public health office in Farmington. "We need to reduce the stigma and keep this under control. I've seen far too many people die because of stigma."
Community groups worked the region Thursday to educate people about the disease and offer free HIV and AIDS testing clinics on Thursday.
In Farmington, San Juan College screened people free of chrage on Thursday. In Shiprock, Dine College hosted a similar screening clinic. In addition to the remembrance vigil in Farmington, there was an AIDS walk in Shiprock on Thursday.
"We just would like people to get tested just so they know their HIV status," Herrera said. "We're working to reduce the number of new cases of HIV."