Officials Warn of More HIV Transmissions Among Homeless Drug Users

A group of eight recently homeless and heterosexual injection-drug users in North King County were diagnosed with HIV by county health officials over the past year, prompting concerns that HIV transmission among that population may be on the rise.

In total, 19 heterosexual individuals have been diagnosed with HIV in King County over the past year, up from seven last year. On average, 10 heterosexual individuals are diagnosed with HIV every year, according to health officials.

What makes the spike especially significant, according to Jeff Duchin, health officer at King County Public Health, is that it’s occurring among a demographic that hasn’t traditionally experienced high rates of HIV infection: heterosexual injection-drug users. Historically, gay and bisexual men have been most at risk of contracting HIV, both in King County and across the state. Similarly, local gay and bisexual injection-drug users—specifically those who use methamphetamine, a stimulant—experienced higher HIV infection rates. However, given that injection-drug users across the county are increasingly using both opioids (such as heroin) and methamphetamine, health officials are concerned that more heterosexual drug users may be contracting HIV. “If HIV begins to spread in a new population of persons who inject drugs who don’t have other risk factors for HIV, there can be a large outbreak, potentially,” Duchin said at a Aug. 30 press conference. “All of our recently identified cases have used both opioids and methamphetamine.”

Additionally, many injection-drug users in the county are homeless, Duchin said, potentially increasing the risk of needle-sharing. Of the eight individuals in North King County recently diagnosed with HIV who were heterosexual and recently homeless, some of them traded sex for drugs or money, and health officials have identified transmission links among four of them, Duchin said.

The eight individuals—whom Duchin described as a “cluster”—were identified through the county’s HIV monitoring program. When a patient tests positive for HIV, medical providers and laboratories are required to notify health officials, who then try to connect the patient to services and treatment. While some individuals who contracted HIV this year were identified through this system, others were identified only after additional investigation by public authorities, adding to the concern that there may be more unreported cases among a population without frequent access to medical services or who may struggle to stay on HIV-treatment drugs. (HIV is treatable with drugs dubbed antiretrovirals, which, if taken according to a regular regimen, can significantly reduce a patient’s viral load.)

“Homelessness and injection-drug use go hand-in-hand in our community, and homeless people have poor access to medical care,” Duchin said. “If they have HIV infections, sometimes it’s more difficult for them to comply with their treatment, and therefore they may have a higher viral load and be more likely to transmit.”

Duchin said that while there is cause for concern, more data is needed to draw substantive conclusions: “We need to do more testing and try and find out if this is the tip of the iceberg or if this is a small, limited transmission event that we’ve discovered,” he said. “If this problem is more extensive than we know or it continues to grow, it could present a very large challenge to our HIV-control program and to our community.” He said that public-health officials are increasing outreach among homeless or recently homeless injection-drug users to test them, connect them to treatment, and distribute sterile syringes.

More in News

Courtesy of Mary’s Place. Volunteers from KeyBank’s Hispanic-Latino Impact Networking Group and Key Women’s Network gave a formerly homeless family “everything they would need to start fresh in a new apartment” through the Make-a-Home program.
Volunteers needed to help displaced families

A mother and her children found a home in Renton thanks to Mary’s Place nonprofit

Staff, council scrap city-wide 20 mph plan

Neighborhoods can still request lower limits

Buses moving out of downtown

A new transit center may spur affordable home construction

From the Renton Reporter archives. The city has been sitting on the old Kaynan hangars, waiting to determine whether they’ll be demolished and reconstructed after the Airport Master Plan.
Councilmember sees loss of airport grant as a opportunity

Tricky airport planning is taking longer than expected, risking a $100K grant

Photo by Haley Ausbun. Seniors in nearby care facilities took flight in a 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane at Renton Municipal Airport, offered by Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
No age cap to fly

On Sunday, Aug. 11 and Monday Aug. 12 seniors from Burien, Mercer… Continue reading

Clear winners in a tight Renton primary

Pavone and Maxwell qualify with a six vote difference

Renderings of the redevelopement of 200 Mill Avenue South, taken from the new contract. Courtesy of city of Renton.
Downtown plaza promises a hotel, apartments and a park

The plans for the old City Hall location have been cemented by Cosmos and city leaders

Local church group reenacts families’ pilgrimage

This summer, over 90 youth, ages 14-18 from the Renton area re-enacted… Continue reading

Most Read