The AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin has confirmed that at least 125 children, teens and adults in the city of Milwaukee have been infected with HIV or syphilis in a disturbing outbreak of sexually transmitted infections (STI). Numerous school and health department organizations, however, are doing all they can to prevent the situation from getting worse.
A transmission cluster is an aggregation of diseases that are manifested in a short span of time and in a relatively small geographical area.
Health officials are particularly worried about spread of serious STIs among teens. The city is in the throes of experiencing an increase in STIs that are reported in young teens and adults ages 15 to 24.
The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system issued an official statement in response to the outbreak: "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," the statement said. MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver was on the phone within 24 hours to get experts to inform students about safe sex and prevention.
In order to battle the epidemic, The Milwaukee Health Department launched an emergency series of testing areas offering free and confidential STI testing, including one at the Keenan Health Center and another at Northwest Health Center in Milwaukee. In addition, the City of Milwaukee provides an extensive list of all venues that provide STI and HIV testing in the city.
In 2016, STI costs were $13.7 million, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the first nine months of 2017, STI costs in Milwaukee soared to nearly 11 million.
One of the setbacks, which is common across all areas, is the fact that people avoid HIV and STI testing because of the lack of confidentiality and positive support.
Michael Gifford is president of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. "Certainly, this is an HIV and syphilis cluster," Gifford told WITI. "HIV and STDs are a serious public health threat."
Milwaukee accounts for over half of new HIV diagnoses reported in Wisconsin, according to the latest Wisconsin HIV Surveillance Annual Review provided by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
"Milwaukee unfortunately has one of the highest STD rates of any city in America. 25 people have been identified as being part of this cluster,” Gifford added. “That number is likely to go up as additional review happens with this situation.”
Public health officials are labeling the cluster as a “sentinel event.”
Gary Hollander is a community volunteer and former CEO of the grassroots LGBT organization Diverse and Resilient. Hollander told the Journal Sentinel that local health officials must act now, especially with a cluster that large.
The severity of both syphilis and HIV depends upon several factors, including how early the infections are detected. While syphilis produces a visible sore that can develop anywhere between 10 to 90 days after infection, HIV infection is more stealth and sinister and may produce no symptoms for years.
Other clusters have been observed and analyzed by researchers in other metropolitan areas such as Chicago.
It’s now up to the city of Milwaukee and its public school system to bridle the cluster outbreak before it becomes a more serious problem. Representatives from the city’s department of Disease Control and Environmental Health have admitted that the local community must confront the issue and start a conversation that includes condoms and how to handle the stigma surrounding STI testing.