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Rise in HIV, syphilis cases in Duluth area concerns health officials

Minnesota and St. Louis County health departments are investigating an outbreak of 13 newly reported HIV cases over the last 18 months.

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An increase of newly diagnosed cases of HIV and syphilis in St. Louis and Lake counties have sparked an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health and St. Louis County Public Health, the departments announced Thursday.

The outbreak was declared when health experts saw that 13 people in the 30-mile radius around Duluth reported new cases between September 2019 and February 2021.

"This is a significant increase and has potential to spread very quickly," a news release from the Minnesota Department of Health said. "Typically, we see one to five cases of HIV per year in St. Louis County."

Preliminary data as of March also indicates a significant increase in cases of syphilis, although numbers were not disclosed in the advisory notice. The Minnesota Department of Health's website lists four new cases in St. Louis County reported as of Jan. 31. The release said cases are mostly among males, but cases among females of reproductive age are increasing, which the health department said raises concerns about the possibility of congenital syphilis cases.

The health department is currently conducting a more thorough lab investigation to give providers more information about the outbreaks, said Ellen Hill, the department's Northeastern District epidemiologist.

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The investigation includes people linked as sex partners, drug-use partners or people in the social network of the 13 identified in the outbreak. The report said this includes people experiencing homelessness who have been known to be in the Duluth area since September 2019, people who are incarcerated, or people in chemical dependency treatment centers whose regular address is in the outbreak area.

"I know COVID is on a lot of people's minds, but this is just another reminder to not delay any routine medical care," Hill said. "If you're a sexually active individual, you really should be getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases — including HIV, syphilis and others — on a regular basis."

All sexually active people should be tested annually for STDs. People in at-risk categories who have been in the Duluth area between September 2019 and the present should be tested more frequently.

Groups of people who are likely to be at high risk of HIV infection include:

  • Men who have sex with men.
  • Sex partners or syringe-sharing partners of people known to be living with HIV.
  • People who inject drugs and their sex partners/needle-sharing partners.
  • People who are experiencing homelessness.
  • People who exchange sex for income or other items of need.
  • People diagnosed with hepatitis C.

The 2020 annual summary of sexually transmitted diseases in Minnesota has been delayed until June. In 2019, 275 cases of HIV were reported across the state. That number was below the five-year average of 296 cases per year from 2015 to 2019.
Syphilis cases increased by 23% in 2019, with 1,127 cases reported across the state. There was a 110% increase in congenital syphilis cases, with 21 cases — the highest ever rate in the state.

Related Topics: HEALTH NEWSST. LOUIS COUNTY
Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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