Spike in HIV cases reported in Fairbanks linked to military

Michelle Theriault Boots

A recent spike in HIV infections in Fairbanks has been linked to military men finding sex partners online, according to newly released public health data.

The outbreak involves nine cases of HIV infection between Jan. 1, 2011, and Jan. 31, 2012, the state Department of Health and Social Services reported in a bulletin issued Tuesday.

From 2007 through 2010, the number of HIV cases reported in the Fairbanks area was fairly stable at two to four a year, so "this is a very unusual spike," said Susan Jones, a state epidemiology official.

Of the nine people infected in 2011, eight were men who had sex with other men, according to the agency. Seven were either in the U.S. Army in Fairbanks or had sexual partners in the military. Most were young-- four were under the age of 20.

Seven of the men reported meeting sex partners online. Six had tested negative for HIV in the 13 months before their diagnoses.

The department released the information because health officials think others may have contracted HIV from the infected people but do not know it yet. Jones said that's why the department took the unusual step of publicizing the outbreak.

HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus, which is transmitted between people through bodily fluids like blood and semen. Over time, people with HIV can develop full-blown AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. If caught early, HIV can be treated with drugs that can allow infected people to live long, relatively healthy lives.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bill Coppernoll said the military requires HIV screening of soldiers every two years as well as before and after deployments.

HIV-positive soldiers can continue on active duty in the military but aren't allowed to serve overseas. They also are ordered by the military to inform future sex partners of their infection.

Soldiers are briefed on "high-risk behaviors" like unprotected sex that can lead to sexually transmitted diseases.

Coppernoll said he believes the briefings include information about both heterosexual and same-sex encounters.

The infected soldiers will receive "the highest standard of medical care," said Brandy Ostanik, an Army medical command spokeswoman.

Last summer, epidemiology workers traveled to Fairbanks to interview the people involved and found that many of them had used websites like Craigslist and Adam2Adam to locate what she described as "anonymous" sex partners in the Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright area.

Sex-seeking Internet sites have been a major conduit for high-risk sex linked to STD infection in the Lower 48, Jones said. This is the only major outbreak associated with them in Alaska she knows of, she said.

"People used to find sex partners in bathhouses and on the street and now it's on Craigslist."

Alaska health officials used those same websites to post warnings about the HIV outbreak and ask people to get tested. At least one new case was diagnosed that way, Jones said.

In settings where a stigma is attached to finding sex partners at places like bars, people tend to turn to the Internet, said Trevor Storrs, the head of the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association.

"When it's so highly stigmatized for people to meet other people to connect with . . . (the Internet) allows that easier connection," he said.

The outbreak is another reminder that everyone needs to know their infection status, Storrs said.

When HIV infections make the news a wave of fear washes over the public, along with heightened awareness, Storrs said, but then it goes away.

It's important, he said, to use the attention generated by an outbreak like this to educate people about safe sex and make it more comfortable to talk openly about the subject.

State public health officials also reported an outbreak of syphilis in the Anchorage area in 2011 and 2012. In that outbreak, 19 syphilis cases were diagnosed, more than half of them since October 2011. Many of those patients reported having found anonymous sex partners on the Internet.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Anchorage Daily News