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George's LGBTea: Is the Outbreak In Milwaukee A Sign Of Times To Come?

Multiple reports have come out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, describing a recent spike in HIV and syphilis infections. In the city, 125 people have tested positive for HIV and/or syphilis, including three babies born with syphilis over the past year.

With testing still being a topic marred with stigma, doctors are concerned that this number is just the beginning and that it is a small sampling of the actual number of infections that may exist out there. However, in an era where the Trump administration continues to attack the funding for HIV and STI prevention, is Milwaukee just a sign of what is to come across the country?

According to the Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, STIs hit a record high in the year 2016, with more than two million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis combined.

“The majority of these new diagnoses (1.6 million) were cases of chlamydia. There were also 470,000 gonorrhea cases and almost 28,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis – the most infectious stages of the disease,” read the report.

Although these STIs are curable, if left untreated they could lead to serious health complications such as infertility, stillbirth of infants, and an increase in the risk for HIV transmission.

HIV infections, although on a decline in several areas among certain populations, continues to infect Black and Brown LGBTQ people, and Black women, at epidemic levels. The CDC stated in 2015 that 50% of Black gay men will contract the virus over their lifetime—and 25% of Latino gay men. As of 2018, Black women make up nearly 60% of all new infections and the total population of all women infected with the virus in the United States.

The outbreak of these viruses and sexually transmitted infections are a rising concern, as the change in the heads of government have begun to shift focus from the HIV epidemic to the opioid crisis, attempting to dismantle nearly 30 or more years of work that have helped to move HIV from a deadly disease to a chronic condition.

The Trump administration’s attack on this vulnerable community started in January of 2017. The removal of the Office of National Aids Policy (ONAP), with neither a replacement of members, nor a national strategy, was the first sign of times to come. This was then followed by a budget reduction request of more than $1.2 billion from HIV prevention, research, and education, domestically—nearly $800 million of that is to be taken from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which fights the virus globally. The final attack was the removal of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (PACHA) at the end of 2017.

The 2018 budget proposed a $186 million cut to the CDC’s center on HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, sexually transmitted infections, and tuberculosis prevention.

An article by James E. Causey and Mary Spicuzza for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted Melissa Ugland, a public health consultant, as saying, "In 2016, the Health Department's budget from the City of Milwaukee was $13.6 million. In the first nine months of 2017, STIs in Milwaukee cost individuals and health care officials who treated them $10.7 million in medications and health care staff time."

There is also a request in the 2019 federal budget for $75 million allocated for abstinence-only “and personal responsibility” sex education programs. Abstinence-only sexual education programs differ from more comprehensive sexual education programs in that the former just tells kids to not have sex until marriage, while the latter goes through the methods of contraception and how to have safer sex. 

This pilot of abstinence was tried in none other than Milwaukee. According to an article in Forbes, “Scientific studies have suggested that abstinence-only programs are not effective at preventing STIs and may even increase the risk of teens having unprotected sex. Meanwhile, a number of medical and scientific bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American Public Health Association, and the American Psychological Association have favored more evidence-based comprehensive sex education programs. This does not mean that abstinence is a bad thing. It also does not mean that everyone should start having sex willy-nilly or with Willy and Nilly.”

As funding threats continue to be made by the current administration, it will be more important than ever that we challenge the attempts being made against the most vulnerable in society. We are honestly living in dangerous times, and we have seen the devastation that HIV has caused globally. The time is now that we push home the fact that HIV and STIs are a social justice issue, one we must all be willing to fight for.