125 people part of large HIV/syphilis cluster in Milwaukee

At least 125 people — including some high school students — have contracted HIV, syphilis or both in one of the largest sexually transmitted infection “clusters” discovered in Milwaukee, health care advocates confirmed to the Journal Sentinel. 

Three local babies were also born with syphilis last year, health officials said.

“This is an epidemic people are not talking about enough, and it leads to people taking unnecessary risks,” said Melissa Ugland, a public health consultant who works with a number of local nonprofit organizations that focus on public health.

There has been no announcement to the general public from the Milwaukee Health Department as of Tuesday.

Fewer than 10% of the 125 people who tested positive are Milwaukee Public Schools students, but health care experts anticipate that the numbers could increase as more people come forward.

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, Ugland said.

Most of those in the group are men and 45% were HIV positive, Ugland and other health care advocates said. 

Ugland said she did not know which school or schools were impacted by the cluster but she said it could be several. 

In a statement, MPS said the Health Department informed the district that the entire city is experiencing an increase in sexually transmitted infections in young people ages 15 to 24.

"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.  

The number of those affected may grow.

“(The cluster) was still considered ongoing; they were continuing to try to track down some folks,” Ugland said.

Bevan Baker, the city's former health commissioner, met with Mayor Tom Barrett to brief him about the cluster in December and again in early January, about a week before Baker resigned over troubles with Milwaukee's lead poisoning prevention programs.

The Milwaukee Health Department on Thursday launched a series of advertisements promoting free, confidential STD testing at the city's Keenan Health Center and Northwest Health Center, health officials said Tuesday.

Public health advocates are labeling the cluster a “sentinel event” because of the number of young people becoming HIV positive and the fact that a babies were born with syphilis.  

“It’s a really big deal,” Ugland said.   

Health officials first became aware of a growing problem with sexually transmitted infections in mid-December after several people reported having HIV or syphilis symptoms, sources said.

When people tested positive, they were referred for care and interviewed about their sexual history. Officials attempt to find out who those infected had sex with and reach out to those people to try to get them tested and in for treatment.

While some people in the cluster have been very upfront with information on the partner or partners they had sexual contact with, others have been hesitant to give out names, advocates said.

Many people fail to come forward out of fear of being stigmatized, said Gary Hollander, a community volunteer and former CEO of Diverse and Resilient, a grass-roots organization that gives a voice to LGBT issues.

When dealing with a cluster this big, it’s important for health officials to move quickly because these viruses and bacterial infections can spread fast, Hollander said.

While there are several different signs and stages of syphilis, the infection can be treated with medications without any long-term effects if caught early enough.

Syphilis symptoms can develop 10 to 90 days after contact but they usually occur within three weeks with a firm, round, painless sore around the original site of the infection. People who don’t get that treated might get additional symptoms, such as a rash in the palm of the hands or feet. 

As for HIV, Hollander stressed that since the virus is no longer viewed as the “death sentence” it was during the 1980s and 1990s people have become lax and stopped doing the things that caused STIs to drop, including wearing a condom during sex, knowing their status, talking to their partners and making sexual health a part of their health routine.

“That’s the unfortunate part,” he said.

People are living longer, productive lives with HIV, and new medications like pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) have been shown to prevent the spread entirely.

HIV symptoms vary and it can take several years for the symptoms to present itself, thus making it easy for the person living without symptoms to spread HIV without knowing it.

“The best way to know is to get tested,” Hollander said.

Ugland said when MPS discovered the news they immediately had health care professionals in to talk with students.

Within 24 hours of learning about the cluster, Ugland said, MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver was on the phone to get people in to talk with students.

“She was on it,” Ugland said.

Both Ugland and Hollander said it was important not to stigmatize young people or the school or schools they attend.

While not having sex is the best way to prevent STIs, Ugland said, some young people don’t have that choice in part due to crimes like sex trafficking.