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Community Leaders Call For Action Amidst Milwaukee HIV, Syphilis Outbreak

Marti Mikkelson
Health Commissioner Patricia McManus discusses solutions to an HIV/Syphilis outbreak

Community leaders called for an “all hands on deck” approach Tuesday to an outbreak of HIV and syphilis in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Health Department says more than 120 people, including some high school students, have been affected. 

Nearly two dozen community leaders packed into a room at Milwaukee City Hall to offer solutions.

Angela Hagy, director of disease control for the Milwaukee Health Department, broke down the numbers. She said health officials are still tracing the roots of the sexually transmitted infections. But, they’re calling the outbreak a cluster because the patients appear to be connected.

“We have a social network of 127 individuals that we identified late last year – and that network included 76 people who tested positive for syphilis, HIV or both,” Hagy said.

Hagy said the number of newly diagnosed HIV and sexually transmitted infection cases has increased nationally, as well as in Milwaukee. Last year, she explained, the city saw 117 cases of HIV and 53 cases of syphilis. She also said that Milwaukee has the highest number of cases of gonorrhea in the nation at more than 4,400.

Milwaukee Interim Health Commissioner Patricia McManus said what she finds particularly troubling is the number of young people involved.

“The spike in the Milwaukee HIV/STI cases is especially concerning because of the handful of youth who were newly diagnosed with HIV or syphilis. Generally the diagnosis is seen among young adults between the ages of 14 and 24 years of age,” McManus said.

McManus said vulnerable communities include men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users and people involved in the sex trade. She said she’s confident the numbers can come down, but it will take a major outreach and education effort, including for parents.

“Even helping parents learn how to talk to their kids is going to be important and still recognizing how to talk to your kids is to love them no matter what they are doing. We find that that’s very difficult to do sometimes because they have ideas on how their kids ought to act,” McManus said.

About two dozen representatives from community health organizations were on hand, promoting their services and announcing extended hours for free, confidential testing.

Julie Bock of Pathfinders said she’ll dispatch her “Street Beat” team to hand out condoms and information on where to get tested. “It’s people in a truck on street corners regularly and dependably so that people can develop relationships and get materials,” she explained.

Perhaps the boldest solutions came from Mike Gifford, executive director of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. He called on the schools to get involved.

“Schools need to update and extend culturally appropriate sex education, establish rapid response teams to address these issues in real time, provide HIV testing in their schools and provide unfettered access to condoms,” Gifford said.

In addition, Gifford announced a $250,000 fund designed to support expanded HIV testing and prevention programs.

One organization that’s keeping an eye on things here is the Human Rights Campaign. Spokesman Peter Cruz called Milwaukee’s outbreak significant, especially because there were 33 new diagnoses of HIV in the past three months.

But he said numbers are also trending higher in southern states – where just like in Milwaukee, people hesitate to be tested because of the stigma associated with sexually transmitted infections.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.