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State disease investigators called to Humboldt to investigate rise in HIV exposure

Humboldt County called two infectious disease investigators from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to help investigate rising rates in people's exposure to HIV.

The two investigators arrived Monday after local health officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) determined five primary cases of HIV have climbed to at least another 35 who have been potentially exposed to the virus through secondary contacts. The original five cases were discovered back in April.

Humboldt County Public Health Officer Dr. Donald Baird says the county is ripe for an outbreak.

"Based upon CDC and CDPH information, that the context of high Hepatitis C rates, high drug use, and especially intravenous drug use, a large homeless, disadvantaged population and with the hookup apps that make it very easy for people to have multiple anonymous partners, it's a perfect storm for this to explode," Dr. Baird said.

Dr. Baird says this new HIV exposure is connected to the recent syphilis outbreak the county has experienced, because syphilis significantly weakens the body's natural defenses against HIV and speeds its spread. These two diseases are also capable of making the other stronger.

But he says the heightened exposure and potential outbreak is not being driven by needles - yet.

"So far, our data indicates that this is all sexually transmitted, primarily through hookup apps such as Grindr or SCRUFF," Dr. Baird said. "We do not have evidence yet that this has spread into the IV drug community. However, that's of concern as well, and it's only a matter of time before that's an additional risk."

Dr. Baird maintains hookup apps easily expose users to the dangers of the unknown.

"These apps allow people to make multiple contacts, often anonymously. I think they have to be used with caution," Dr. Baird said. "It bypasses the normal human-to-human interaction. Back in the good old days, we used to get to know who our sexual partners were, and I think that the anonymity has made it much more likely for these opportunistic diseases to spread."

One of the worst HIV outbreaks in recent history occurred in Indiana in 2015. Dr. Baird says former Indiana Governor and current U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stopped the spread by overriding state law to implement a needle exchange program.

"They instituted a very aggressive, sterile syringe exchange program which actually stemmed that spread, so that people sharing needles could no longer spread the HIV," Dr. Baird said. "If you restrict people's access to clean needles, they will share them."

Dr. Baird isn't necessarily suggesting you delete your hookup app from your smartphone, but says there are measures you can take to make yourself safer.

"Know your partner. Most of theses cases involved hookup apps with multiple, anonymous sexual partners," Dr. Baird said. "Use of condoms could have prevented this, and just remember that you are one swipe away from potential exposure to a devastating, infectious disease."

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