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University News

R.I. HIV cases see sudden rise

U. to host free testing, presentation

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010

Three students in Rhode Island colleges and universities have tested positive for acute HIV in the last six months, according to Timothy Flanigan, director of infectious diseases at Miriam Hospital and professor of medicine at Alpert Medical School.

Doctors diagnose acute HIV in recently infected patients whose symptoms appear very soon after infection. Its incidence worries health professionals in Rhode Island because it “means there is ongoing transmission in our community,” Flanigan said.

Flanigan said the names of the schools that the infected students attend are not being released at this time.

These recent infections come in a year when there is a reported 20 percent rise in Rhode Island in overall HIV infections among men who have sex with men, said Edward Wheeler, director of Health Services. While gay and bisexual men are not the only group affected, growing HIV incidence in Rhode Island currently falls mainly in this demographic, said Kelly Garrett, coordinator of the LGBTQ Resource Center.

To address the risks of HIV and available support services for students in the University community, Health Services and the Brown University AIDS Program are hosting a joint presentation Monday at 7 p.m. in Petteruti Lounge.

“We’ve seen an upswing (of HIV) in the gay and bisexual community, which is really scary,” Flanigan said. “We want the message out: This is urgent.”

The high risk from engaging in unprotected sex can be greatly lessened through the use of condoms, he added.

“Years ago, people were dying, and people saw their friends were dying,” Wheeler said. But now, because HIV is more treatable, a sense of false security has emerged, he said, creating a level of “casualness.”

Many incorrectly think HIV is confined to drug users and the poor, said Professor of Medicine and Community Health Kenneth Mayer, who directs the AIDS program.

“Brown students think they’re in a bubble,” Wheeler said. “I really hope students hear the message that this is important.”

In light of the growing concern, Health Services will also host free HIV testing clinics by appointment on Fridays for the rest of the semester.

A letter to students from Flanigan, Garrett, Mayer and Wheeler with details on the infection trend and testing has been posted on the Health Services website.

Wheeler said Health Services had already been working to bring a free and confidential HIV testing clinic to campus next semester, but decided to move it up to this semester following these concerns. Health Services will also hold free testing on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, as it has done in the past, Wheeler said. Health Services also provides regular testing for other sexually transmitted infections, but fees vary by insurance.

For students who wish to leave campus to get tested for HIV, many options exist, including testing at the Miriam Hospital Immunology Center and clinics hosted by AIDS advocacy groups across the state, Mayer said. Anyone who engages in high-risk behavior should be tested, Flanigan said.

The testing for acute HIV is different from the standard HIV test and a student must ask for it, Mayer said. In the days and weeks following a high-risk encounter, a student may develop symptoms similar to mononucleosis, including fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, Flanigan said.

“By providing history, people can potentially be diagnosed early and have access to treatment,” Mayer said, adding that “treatment is much less toxic than in the early days” of HIV, now often requiring only one pill a day.

Still, even with easier and more effective treatment, Flanigan said, the community should not be complacent and should remember that HIV is an incurable virus that requires lifelong treatment.

If a student does become infected, several Rhode Island hospitals — including Miriam Hospital — offer treatment regardless of insurance, Flanigan said.

Following high-risk exposure, students can also receive post-exposure prophylaxis treatment within 72 hours at Health Services, which may potentially prevent the HIV infection from developing, Wheeler said.

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