The state is coordinating with public health and military officials to raise awareness about a cluster of new cases of HIV, the disease that causes AIDS, in the Interior.
Six cases have been reported in the Fairbanks area since May. Only two new cases of HIV or AIDS were reported in the Interior in 2018, according to the Alaska Epidemiology 2018 Annual Infectious Disease Report.
The six cases are all men ages 21 to 33. Five were military or reported having sex with someone in the military, five were newly diagnosed with HIV and five reported having sex with men. The other component of most of the cases was the use of smartphone apps to find a partner.
“I think we’re not fully sure that all of these folks are connected together, but they’re giving enough information to us that they’re all having similar characteristics,” said Susan Jones, HIV/STD program manager with the Department of Health and Social Services.
Jones said they could not speculate on the reasons for the outbreak but noted the concern is getting people into clinics to be screened and tested.
“We do see clusters every now and then and, again, it’s because these clusters have partners that we have not been able to find we’re making a public announcement about it,” she said.
Military health care officials discussed various resources available to service members during an interview with the News-Miner.
Lt. Col. Kyndra Jackson said sex education is an important part of overall readiness training and is incorporated into standard inprocessing for new soldiers.
Jackson also mentioned preventative health assessments, which Lt. Col. Matthew Ramage, chief of aerospace medicine at Eielson Air Force Base, also touched on.
“Every year, with our annual preventive health assessments, we have education with the members regarding safer sex as well as, at any commander’s request, we’ll have our public health go out and do unit outreach if there’s any specific concerns,” said Ramage.
Similar to Fort Wainwright, which provides targeted access to condoms, Eielson also offers targeted education regarding risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and condoms are available in dorms for airmen, as well as in public health clinics, Ramage said.
He added the public health clinic is open access for any individuals, whether they be active duty or a beneficiaries.
After the new cases were announced, Jackson said, the information was shared with unit leadership throughout Fort Wainwright. On further addressing the issue with the military community, she said health care providers are informed.
“All of our local medical providers are well aware of the cluster and the demographics of that cluster,” she said, adding that there have been no changes to the services already offered at present.
Ramage echoed her statement, noting outreach to commanders.
“We made notification to the commanders that there was a cluster of HIV diagnoses in the local community. However nothing has really changed in the amount of education,” he said.
Both stated their clinics offer HIV pre-exposure prophylactics and noted continued coordination with the state.
“This is a public health issue, and it’s a communitywide effort, so we will continue to work closely with the Alaska Department of Health and Public Services,” Jackson said, adding that the efforts will include both military and civilian communities.
On getting tested, Ramage directed people to the public health clinic on base.
“If anybody has any concerns, any exposure they might have had to HIV or sexually transmitted illness after an intimate encounter they’re welcome to go to their primary care provider or stop by the Eielson Public Health Clinic for screening,” he said. The number for the clinic is 907-377-6526.
Jackson similarly directed people to call the Fort Wainwright Department of Public Health at 907-361-3057 or 907-361-4148 with questions about HIV/STD testing or resources.
While Eielson reports clinic visits regarding HIV and STDs has remained steady, the Fort Wainwright walk-in clinic has seen an uptick in people coming in for testing.
Jones said there has been discussion of putting more educational material out to the community and that public health nursing has seen more people coming in regarding STDs following the notice of the HIV cluster, specifically noting the Fairbanks Regional Public Health Center.
“I think over the last few days since the information has been out locally in the media, I do believe that we have been getting calls and we are seeing more clients in our STD appointment slots,” said Shelly Foint-Anderson, Public Health Nurse manager with the Fairbanks center.
“If people have questions, they certainly can call the public health center, certainly can speak with a public health nurse,” she said, adding that clinic staff are happy to screen anybody who wants to be screened, specifically noting the offer is open to men of all ages.
Foint-Anderson, Jones, Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright plan to meet in the coming weeks to look at the response and continue discussions.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal.