There’s been a recent surge in HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and syphilis cases, 125 and counting, in the largest city in Wisconsin. But Milwaukee isn’t the only part of the U.S. where sexually transmitted infections (STI) are on the rise and funding for STI prevention programs is short.
Three local babies were also born with syphilis last year.
The cluster, or social network, was identified late last year. It involves at least 127 people, including 76 who tested positive for syphilis, HIV or both, said Angela Hagy, the city’s director of disease control and environmental health. It includes 19 people who tested positive for syphilis, 24 people who had syphilis and HIV, and 33 people who tested positive for HIV, she said.
Another 25 people tested negative for both, and 26 couldn’t be contacted or were unwilling to be tested, Hagy said.
Gifford was among a dozen health leaders who discussed the HIV and syphilis cluster in Milwaukee that has affected at least 127 individuals, including young teens. The group held a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday to show they are committed to taking action.
“We must act as if the lives of our children depend on it," Gifford said. “After all, they do."
Some 40% to 50% of high school age youths are sexually active, he said.
“Every parent that is aware of this needs to think about how urgent is it for my child," Gifford said. “This can happen to any child in any school setting or outside the setting. It’s very urgent and parents need to act today."
A cluster is an aggregation of disease closely grouped in time and place. This cluster was identified as such because the people in it could all be connected and were in contact with each other during a 12-month, identifiable period, health officials say.
“The spike in the Milwaukee HIV STI cases is especially concerning to the City of Milwaukee Health Department because of a handful of youth who were newly diagnosed with HIV or syphilis," Health Commissioner Patricia McManus said.
Unfortunately, that did not get conveyed to me at this meeting."
Gifford said he understands the challenges of reaching a vulnerable population, so the AIDS Resource Center announced a $250,000 HIV/STI prevention leadership fund that is designed to target different organizations to come up with new strategies to reach those individuals.
Gifford said it is time for unique ideas that would likely include a social media presence and more condoms and testing in schools.
Social media makes it much harder to prevent the spread of HIV and STIs, and numerous websites and apps have made it easier to engage in risky sex, he said.
“Their phone itself can be a risk," because it gives people unlimited access to things that they could not see 10 years ago, he said.
The AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and other community groups in Milwaukee are also offering expanded hours for free and confidential testing for sexually transmitted infections.
The cluster is just one part of Milwaukee’s struggles with sexually transmitted infections. Preliminary numbers from 2017 show the city saw 117 newly diagnosed cases of HIV, 53 cases of syphilis, 4,401 cases of gonorrhea, and 9,725 cases of chlamydia.
When it comes to STIs, Milwaukee leads the nation in several categories. The Milwaukee area ranked first in the nation in gonorrhea rates; fourth in chlamydia; and is ranked as one of the worst places for HIV for men of color under the age of 25.
in 2012, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the Republican-controlled state legislature repealed a law that required schools to teach about condoms and birth control, replacing it with a law requiring schools to teach that “abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted infections." That decision was made in spite of a 2009 study that showed 45 percent of Wisconsin’s teenagers were already sexually active; nearly 40 percent also said they had not used a condom the last time they had sex.
Parents are also not talking to their kids about drugs and using condoms…