DILLINGHAM — Alaska health officials have reported an outbreak of five new HIV cases in a Bristol Bay area village in 2016.
The cluster began with one individual who tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS in February, officials wrote in a state epidemiology bulletin. Two more were reported in October and November, and two additional people tested positive as officials began investigating.
Officials identified the village only as “Community A” in the epidemiology report but confirmed to KDLG radio that it was in the Bristol Bay area.
Despite initial concerns that the HIV outbreak might be tied to needle sharing linked to an epidemic of opioid drug use, Dr. Catherine Hyndman of the Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham said health officials have determined that unprotected sex, not needle sharing, allowed transmission of the virus.
“HIV is spread through sharing of blood and body fluids. It could be happening by drug use, but it does not appear to be so in this particular group of cases. This particular group of cases seems to be associated with sexually transmitted vectors,” Hyndman said.
According to a state report, all five of the HIV cases in this cluster involve men who have sex with men.
“Needle sharing was not reported as a risk factor,” the report said, but alcohol and drug use did likely lead to unprotected sexual activity.
“When a person is intoxicated by alcohol, they make more poor choices. Or, unfortunately, in some cases their choice is taken away from them by the alcohol. They may be passed out and not even know that someone is having sex with them,” Hyndman said.
HIV is treatable, and Hyndman recommends people at risk get tested often and begin treatment quickly if diagnosed with HIV. Transmitting the virus is also preventable.
“Use protection. The only protection that is available for sexually transmitted cases is wear condoms. Every time. Every time,” she said.
State health officials say limited access to health care and health education, as well as patient concerns about stigma and confidentiality, can be barriers to routine testing in rural Alaska.
Over the past five years, an average of 28 newly diagnosed cases of HIV were reported in Alaska. A majority, 54 percent, involve men who have sex with men, most of whom live in urban areas of the state.