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Missoula County sees jump in HIV infections, officials recommend testing

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Missoula County health officials have documented a recent jump in HIV infections and warn sexually active people they should get tested.

“We tend to see small numbers of new cases every year, but to have this many new cases – at this count 12 – documented in a five-month period is an unusually high number,” Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy said on Wednesday. “Twelve cases in one county in five months is an outbreak.”

HIV causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS, a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. It is spread by unprotected sexual contact or infected blood transfer, such as sharing infected hypodermic needles. Leahy said all the Missoula cases appeared to stem from sexual activity.

The announcement was made after consulting with many community groups, including Partnership Health Center, the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force and the Open Aid Alliance. Open Aid director Christa Weathers said the decision to publicize the outbreak was a hard one, because health officials depend on people self-reporting their condition to track the disease’s spread.

“It’s hard to issue a public health risk without creating alarm, or without pointing fingers at any group of people,” Weathers said. “It’s a great opportunity to remind people this is a risk and why testing is so important. But we don’t want to discourage anyone who may know they may need to get tested, but they’re afraid to come in and then this hits the media and they’re gone.”

So far, all the confirmed cases are adult males. But Leahy warned that women who don’t consider themselves members of a high-risk group for HIV infection have also been exposed.

“It’s sexually spread, but it’s time to remind ourselves – you really cannot know if you’re infected unless you’ve been tested,” Leahy said. “We recommend health clinics regularly offer HIV testing to sexually active patients. Rather than presume someone is in a risk group, it’s risk behavior, not membership in any group, that they need to think about.”

Leahy said confidential interviews with infected individuals revealed most did not believe they were at risk of getting exposed to HIV. They also disclosed that the infections spread through a wide range of situations, from presumed monogamous relationships to anonymous sexual encounters.

New HIV cases regularly occur in Montana, but a dozen incidents is half the average total for the whole state in a year. Leahy said no other counties in Montana have reported a similar outbreak.

Many people with HIV infection do not have symptoms and may not realize they can infect others through sexual contact. Men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users are the two highest-risk groups. Condom use is an effective form of protection from HIV in sexual contact.

“People have trusted us with their most private affairs,” Leahy said. “A number of people received very difficult news about their health and have continued to work with us. It’s that process of notifying partners, keeping privacy, continuing testing, that’s given us the numbers that we have. If they don’t come forward for testing, and talk to us about who else may be placed at risk, we have no way of intervening.”

Places to get tested include:

• Missoula City-County Health Department: 258-3896.

• Open Aid Alliance: 543-4770.

• Partnership Health Center: 258-4789.

• FDH and Associates: 829-8075.

• Planned Parenthood of Missoula: 728-5490.

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