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Alaska HIV, syphilis rates up; many find sexual partners online

Tegan Hanlon

HIV and syphilis cases have spiked in Alaska this year and state health officials say a majority of those diagnosed found their sexual partners online.

Health care facilities have reported 20 new cases of HIV and 20 cases of infectious syphilis so far in 2014, according to preliminary numbers from the state health department.

Last year, the department recorded a total of 24 new reports of HIV and 31 cases of infectious syphilis. Early estimates also show cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia -- two sexually transmitted diseases that the state has long struggled with -- spreading faster this year compared to 2013.

"We are having a big problem," said Susan Jones, the state's HIV/STD program manager.

But it's not the rate of HIV and STDs in Alaska that Jones found most alarming, it's the trends detected by disease investigators who interviewed this year's newly-diagnosed patients.

The state has not fully gathered details surrounding the gonorrhea and chlamydia uptick yet, Jones said, but it has reported specific commonalities among the HIV and syphilis cases for 2014.

For example, a majority of patients said they used online websites or cellphone applications to find sexual partners.

The sex was often casual and anonymous, Jones said. "Sometimes they don't even know the person's real name, they just know the person's computer handle."

Many were men having sex with other men. Many lived in Anchorage, she said.

Patients told investigators they used online websites including Craigslist, Adult FriendFinder and Adam4Adam. Others said they used a cellphone application called Grindr, marketed as "the world's biggest mobile network of guys" where users can find men close to them through location-based services.

"If you're an individual who's finding your partners online or finding your partners on phone apps, these groups of individuals have infections and you need to go get tested," Jones said.

At Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, flyers went up in the last six months with messages targeting the groups who use these online sources, said Davy Norris, the association's HIV prevention coordinator.

One sign reads in large cursive type: "I hooked up online, I caught a virus." In smaller print: "Syphilis rates are on the rise for men who hookup online or with phone apps. Take care of yourself. Avoid risk. Use a condom and get tested regularly."

The association in Spenard does rapid HIV testing, provides case management, counseling and prevention education as well as assistance with food, housing, job training and other supportive services for people with HIV/AIDS.

Norris said if someone comes in and says they are using websites or Grindr to find sexual partners, counselors will discuss the risks and encourage testing.

"We encourage everyone to use condoms correctly and consistently," Norris said. "We encourage everyone to communicate with their partners, ask when their partners were last tested, if they know their status. And you know, also just to use common sense in terms of not having many, many, many unprotected anonymous partners."

The increased numbers of HIV and syphilis cases in 2014, paired with a long-running statewide trend of high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, has left disease investigators strapped for time.

Since 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Alaska as the state with the highest or second-highest rate of chlamydia. In 2013, Alaska was number one. Rates of gonorrhea were down in 2008, but have started to crawl back up, Jones said.

While the state has yet to release official data on chlamydia and gonorrhea for 2014, Jones said that the number of chlamydia cases in the first three months surpassed the number in the same time frame last year. There has been a 50 percent increase in gonorrhea cases.

In all of 2013, the state health department received nearly 6,000 reports of chlamydia and more than 1,000 reports of gonorrhea.

"So we have a lot of gonorrhea," she said. "We actually have so much gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV that the disease investigators are having trouble doing any investigating for chlamydia."

This year, some of those diagnosed with syphilis and HIV also had chlamydia or gonorrhea, signifying to health officials that the patients are not using condoms, Jones said.

To address HIV and STD rates, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium launched iknowmine.org in 2009 to make testing and treatment more available, mailing condoms out to rural Alaska.

About three years later, the consortium partnered with multiple health agencies including Planned Parenthood and the state health department to start Wrap It Up Alaska, a condom campaign.

While Connie Jessen, HIV/STD prevention manager with the consortium, said the programs have covered a swath of Alaska, sending more than 87,000 condoms across the state, officials have started talks about a new ad campaign. This time they hope to buy ad space on online sites and Grindr, to get the word out about the HIV and syphilis spread.

"We're not getting the message to everyone who needs to hear it," she said.

NOTE: The original version of this story misstated the number of reports of chlamydia and gonorrhea in 2013. There were 6,000 reports of chlamydia and more than 1,000 reports of gonorrhea. 

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.

 


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com