Data from the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin released earlier this week confirmed that at least 125 Milwaukee residents have contracted HIV and syphilis in recent months. This makes the cluster one of the largest of its kind ever announced in the city’s history, as noted by officials who spoke to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
According to a report from WTKR, ARCW officials confirmed three days after the aforementioned Journal-Sentinel report that there is definitely an HIV and syphilis cluster in Milwaukee, with the list of infected individuals including some children. ARCW president Michael Gifford said that the cluster underscores the ongoing problem of sexually transmitted diseases in Milwaukee, a city that takes up over half of Wisconsin’s total HIV cases.
“Milwaukee, unfortunately, has one of the highest STD rates of any city in America,” he stressed.
Furthermore, Gifford stated that Milwaukee’s estimated 125 HIV and syphilis cases in the cluster are “likely to go up,” as the results of further reviews come in.
Based on data published Tuesday by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, less than 10 percent of the people in the cluster who tested positive for HIV or syphilis are enrolled in the city’s public school system. Additionally, three babies were born with syphilis in Milwaukee in 2017, according to health officials who spoke to the publication.
Further breaking down the statistics related to Milwaukee’s HIV and syphilis cluster, the Journal-Sentinel reported that 45 percent of the group were HIV positive, with most of the individuals in the overall group being male. The city’s officials, however, were especially concerned at the possible number of young people in the cluster, including people in the 15-to-24 age group, where officials said that cases of sexually transmitted infections are rising, and the aforementioned cases of infants born with syphilis.
“Because schools have a significant number of students in the 15-18 age group, we are working with the Milwaukee Health Department, in a collaborative and preventive effort, to share information with young people in middle schools and high schools to keep them healthy and to protect their health,” read a statement from Milwaukee Public Schools.
Speaking to the Journal-Sentinel, sources familiar with the situation said that health officials were first alerted to the issue in mid-December when several Milwaukee residents reported symptoms related to HIV or syphilis. Based on interviews with those in the cluster, some of the people were open when it came to information on previous or current sexual partners, while others were reluctant to share such information. According to Gary Hollander, former CEO of LGBT advocacy organization Diverse and Resilient, this might be due to a “fear of being stigmatized” for carrying a sexually transmitted disease.
Meanwhile, the ARCW’s Gifford was quoted by WTKR as saying that HIV negative people can safeguard themselves from possible HIV infections through pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. He added that those who are concerned that they may have either HIV or syphilis could get “free and anonymous HIV tests and free syphilis treatment” at ARCW’s offices in downtown Milwaukee.
Although some news outlets have used the term “outbreak” when referring to Milwaukee’s HIV and syphilis cluster, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists both “outbreak” and “cluster” as similar terms that nonetheless have different meanings. Outbreaks, according to the CDC’s literature, are much like epidemics in the sense that the term refers to a typically sudden rise in the number of cases reported for a disease, but in a more localized setting. Clusters, on the other hand, are “aggregations of cases” within the same place and time, where the expected number of cases may not yet be definite. Both terms refer to instances where cases of a disease are higher than the number expected for an area’s population.