HIV Outbreak In Milwaukee Considered Largest STI Cluster In U.S. History

"This is an epidemic people are not talking about enough," says one public health expert.

At least 125 people, including some high school students, have tested positive for HIV, syphilis or both in a growing cluster of sexually transmitted infections affecting in Milwaukee.

“This is an epidemic people are not talking about enough, and it leads to people taking unnecessary risks,” public health specialist Melissa Ugland told the Journal Sentinel.

The CDC defines a cluster as “an unusual aggregation of disease… grouped together in time and place.” Health officials first became aware of the problem in mid-December, but it’s believed the patients were in contact with one another over a yearlong period. Most are men, and 45% tested HIV positive. A dozen are high school students, though that number could rise as more people come forward.

In a statement, officials for the Milwaukee Public School System said they were working with the city’s health department “to share information with young people in middle schools and high schools to keep them healthy and to protect their health.”

The health department has also launched an ad campaign promoting confidential and free STI testing.

Former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker reportedly informed Mayor Tom Barrett about the cluster in December, but resigned in January over complaints he mishandled the city’s lead-poisoning prevention programs.

Health experts are calling the cluster a “sentinel event” because of the number of young people becoming HIV positive and the fact that several babies were born with syphilis.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Ugland.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.