Fairbanks, Alaska Sees Spike in HIV Cases

Alaskan public health officials were shocked as they produced the reports of HIV and syphilis cases from this past year.

Susan Jones, Alaska’s HIV/STD program manager is quoted in the Alaskan Dispatch stating that, on average, Fairbanks, Alaska will report two to four new cases of HIV each year. In 2010, Fairbanks reported only three cases. From January 2011 to January 2012, however, Fairbanks reported nine individuals with new HIV diagnoses.

Though there were 77 newly reported cases of HIV in Alaska in 2010, which is the last year for which official numbers are available, Jones says that Alaska as a state is not seeing an increase in the incidence in HIV. Thirty-eight of these cases were infected in 2010, and 39 of the cases were already HIV positive in 2010, but had arrived in Alaska from other states.

The shocking news, then, is from the local level, “you really have to break down the numbers” to see it, says Jones. After investigating the spike in cases, public health officials revealed that seven of the nine newly infected cases participated in the military, either on active duty, as family of someone in the military, or as a sexual partner to someone in the military. Eight of the new cases were men engaging in sex with other men. Finally, seven newly infected patients participated in sex with anonymous partners found on the Internet.

The Alaskan Native News reports during the same January 2011 – January 2012 time period, Anchorage experienced an increase in syphilis cases. No syphilis data from previous years was reported, however, it has been determined that the majority of the cases also participate in anonymous sex and sex with other men.

One of the difficulties public health officials face now, is finding the anonymous partners of these new HIV cases. Because everything is anonymous, it is very challenging to track the partners and inform them that they are at risk, thus preventing the spread of the disease. This is one reason why the health department released information on the outbreak: others may be infected without knowing it.

It is not so unusual that the majority of the new cases are found in men who have sex with men, or MSM. MSM face a higher risk of HIV transmission than other populations for biological and socio-cultural factors. Anal intercourse increases the risk of HIV transmission because the epithelium lining the rectum has receptors that easily bind to HIV and because the epithelium tears easily, allowing viral penetration. Stigma, discrimination, and homophobia may also lead to increased risk for HIV. Men may avoid being tested or visiting clinics for prevention help if they fear discrimination.

HIV is a virus that is spread between people via bodily fluids, and causes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV destroys CD4 + T cells, which are integral parts of the human immune system. Avert.org, an international HIV and AIDS charity, estimates that more than one million people in the United States are living with HIV. The CDC recommends wearing condoms during sex and reducing the number of sexual partners. Further, the CDC advises against injectable drug use. If you are injecting drugs, do not share syringes or any equipment used to prepare the injectable drug. Most important, the CDC recommends knowing your HIV status. Locate and HIV testing site here.

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