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HIV cluster: Here’s where the investigation stands one year later

Posted at 11:14 AM, Jan 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-22 11:15:08-05

There’s no evidence that new cases of HIV in the region are on the decline, according to a news release from the Northern Kentucky Health Department and other local health agencies.

The finding, among others, was released Tuesday, about one year after multiple agencies began investigating a cluster of HIV cases among individuals who inject drugs. Officials in Hamilton County and Northern Kentucky started working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early 2018 to address the reported increase.

Preliminary findings from a CDC Epi-Aid team found that HIV is being “transmitted rapidly” between people in Northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati metro region, and that the sharing and reuse of needles is driving an increase for both HIV and hepatitis cases. The CDC team found that most people were diagnosed early, but found incidents where early diagnoses were delayed because patients were not tested during medical visits.

READ MORE: HIV...Our billion-dollar time bomb

The CDC also lists mental health issues and the stigma associated with HIV as barriers to individuals receiving help or testing for the illness.

“The CDC team took a deep dive into our data and helped us unify it across state lines, giving us a clear picture of the regional issues,” said Hamilton County Public Health Commissioner Tim Ingram. “We appreciate their collaboration and expertise and look forward to continuing work with our colleagues throughout Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky to reduce cases of HIV.”

Recommendations from the CDC include:

  • Improving comprehensive syringe service programs to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Expanding HIV testing in jails and emergency health departments.
  • Improved “coordination between HIV testing, HIV care, mental health, and substance use treatment.”
  • Expanded housing and supportive services for patients.
  • Continued sharing of data between health agencies in Ohio and Kentucky.

Dr. Lynne Saddler, district director of health for NKY Health, said the health departments will work to carry out the recommendations from the CDC.

“The Epi-Aid team helped identify additional strategies to reach people who inject drugs so that we can reduce the spread of HIV in our region,” she said.

MORE: New HIV infection numbers don't bode well for Greater Cincinnati

In addition to getting tested for HIV, individuals who are at-risk can take other steps to prevent transmission of the virus, such as:

  • Practicing safe sex. This can include abstinence (not having sex), limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms correctly. Free condoms are available from NKY Health’s county health centers.
  • If you are injecting drugs, never share needles. Utilize local syringe access exchange programs (currently in operation in Grant County, along with Hamilton County and Pendleton County) to access sterile, unused injection equipment.
  • Some individuals who are at risk may benefit from HIV prevention medicines, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and should check with their health care provider.
  • Individuals who are at-risk should also be tested and treated for any other infections they may have -- including hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections.
  • When ready, access a local addiction treatment. The Northern Kentucky Addiction Helpline offers referrals 24 hours a day at 859-415-9280.