Compiled by MCJ Editorial Staff
While students across the nation-and the Milwaukee area-demonstrated Wednesday to bring attention to the national crisis of school gun violence and demand local and federal government enact stricter laws to prevent easy access to guns, a coalition of local health agencies gathered the day before to bring attention to another crisis.
The crisis: The alarming increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) diagnosed in the city. Milwaukee is one of a number of cities reporting increases in the number of diagnosed HIV/STI cases.
Of 127 people recently tested in one social network, 76 tested positive for HIV, syphilis or both.
Last year, there were 4,400 cases of gonorrhea in Milwaukee, the highest number of cases in the nation. It’s a new development in a continuing epidemic that has the city among the worst nationally for sexually transmitted diseases.
The Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) also expressed concern about three cases of congenital syphilis that were identified in 2017. “This is considered a sentinel event, it rarely occurs,” said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia McManus in a statement during a news conference on the matter at city hall.
“The last known, single case, was in 2012. The MHD strongly encourages pregnant women and women of childbearing ages to use protection, get regularly tested for HIV/STIs and complete treatment regiments as required.”
“If this isn’t a wake-up call for the city of Milwaukee and parents throughout the area, I don’t know what will be,” said Michael Gifford of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW).
Gifford admitted the response by the city and health agencies to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) “has not been nearly enough.”
Aside from ARCW and MHD, representatives of Milwaukee Public Schools, Diverse & Resilient, Planned Parenthood, and Children’s Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin also promised stepped-up efforts to deal with the crisis.
McManus noted Milwaukee, like other cities, has a high number of vulnerable populations which are experiencing high incidences of diagnosis.
Vulnerable populations include Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSMs), ethnic minorities, injection drug users, women (especially those in the sex trade), and young people caught up in sex trafficking.
“Sexually exploited youth are at particular risk for sexually transmitted infections,” said Dr. Wendi Ehrman of Children’s Hospital and MCW.
The recent HIV and syphilis spike in Milwaukee has exposed another concern: that the people being impacted are younger than ever before, and reaching even into the schools.
MHD noted a handful of youth were newly diagnosed with HIV or syphilis. Generally, the diagnosis is seen between young adults 14 to 24 years of age.
Health advocates representing the agencies urged parents to take the crisis seriously .
“The MHD strongly encourages parents, caregivers, teachers and others to promote the idea of teens abstaining from sex, or using protection if they are sexually active and to get regularly tested for HIV/STIs.
“The stigma and discrimination with being tested for HIV/STIs and or having the infections must be removed to increase early diagnosis and proper treatment,” said McManus.
Tony Snell-Rodriquez, the interim executive director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center said parents will begin to understand it (the crisis) when it happens to their child. And by then “it may be too late.”
ARCW, the city health department and some 10 other health agencies that deal with STI/HIV are increasing their hours for testing, coordinating outreach programs, hotlines and information efforts focusing on testing and prevention.
ARCW is also creating a hotline and announced they have established the “Strategic HIV/STI Prevention Leadership Fund. The $250,000 Fund is a lead investment to catalyse the community’s commitment to attack HIV, STIs, and their root causes.