Milwaukee is currently experiencing a “cluster” of HIV and syphilis infections, according to a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. At least 125 people have contracted one or both, including a dozen high school students and three babies born with syphilis. The entire city is reportedly experiencing an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people age 15-24.
The term “cluster” is used to describe the outbreak because all of the individuals in it could be connected to each other. But because not all people are willing to identify others, it could be even bigger than reports currently indicate.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Melissa Ugland, a public health consultant in Milwaukee.
It’s seemingly no coincidence that in 2012, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the Republican-controlled state legislature repealed a law that required schools to teach about condoms and birth control, replacing it with a law requiring schools to teach that “abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted infections.” That decision was made in spite of a 2009 study that showed 45 percent of Wisconsin’s teenagers were already sexually active; nearly 40 percent also said they had not used a condom the last time they had sex.
In the wake of the outbreak, Milwaukee Public Schools have begun inviting health care professionals to talk to students about the issue. Angela Hagy, the city’s director of Disease Control and Environmental Health, said last month it was essential to increase discussion of condom use and help reduce the stigma around STI testing.
“Locally, data indicates that half of all sexually active people will get an STI before the age of 25,” she warned.
For many, these prevention efforts are too little, too late. The Journal Sentinel notes that Milwaukee ranks first in the nation for gonorrhea rates, fourth in chlamydia, and has one of the highest rates of HIV for men of color under the age of 25.
Countless studies have found that comprehensive sex education leads to healthier sexual behavior. Experts note that those habits are important to introduce early because many teens are already sexually active before they receive any sex education. States like Illinois have actually responded to these concerns by banning abstinence-only education.
A recent study also found that an estimated 340 young adults and children have been victims of sex trafficking in Milwaukee, making it a “mecca of sex trafficking.” Given most of the sex trafficking victims were female and most of the new infections are in men, it’s unclear if there’s a direct connection, but it could be yet another obstacle for containing the outbreak.
Michael Gifford, president of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, has warned the city to take the outbreak seriously. “We can’t let this cluster fool us. HIV and STDs are high throughout the community and throughout the region,” he told WTKR.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to limit Title X funding for family planning and preventative health services to organizations that focus on abstinence.