Pima County STD hot spots are not always at a specific location - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Pima County STD hot spots are not always at a specific location

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Sexually transmitted diseases.

Some think that's a problem some place else. Not here.

Out of sight, out of mind.

That saying can be dangerous when you're dealing with HIV and other STDs.

Health care workers say that's one reason why it's best to know the truth.

In some communities around the country, they keep track of STD hot spots. They are neighborhoods or even zip codes.

What we found is that in Pima County, STDs are not one place or another. Hot spots here can move around. Plus, there's a new hot spot that's getting more popular every day, but you won't find it on any map. 

All of this is why STD's are high on the minds of those on the front lines against STDs, including HIV.

Robert Knight is a volunteer and a peer counselor with the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation. When we met him, we asked about the colorful tattoos that cover his arms.

"Every piece that's on my--on me--is a piece of my story and a piece of my journey and has all been since my diagnosis," Knight explains.

He has been living with AIDS for 17 years. He's been through many health crises, including cancer.

"I thought I was going to die. And at one point I wanted to die. You don't know how to tell your family," Knight says of his AIDS diagnosis.

Now Knight volunteers, counseling others, and using his insight to help them.

"Unless you've really walked in those shoes, people don't understand," he says.

Knight believes in education, in getting the word out and in getting tested.

"Don't believe what the next person is saying to you--you know, 'Oh, I don't have HIV or I don't have any other STDs.' If you become involved in a relationship, go together (to be tested)," Knight says.

"Regardless of your--any belief--whether it's religious, it's background, it's cultural, AIDS does not discriminate," Knight adds.

Pima County has a mobile health clinic that goes where the people are.

Pima County Health Department HIV Program Coordinator Miguel Soto takes us on a tour.

"So this is our education unit. This is also the mobile unit that we take out to testing at bars and other events."

Those are events such as concerts and street fairs, any place people gather. The mobile health clinic is one of the most visible ways Pima County is trying to battle HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. A person can walk into the van and get tested for any of those STDs.

"Just about everything we offer in the clinic we're able to offer in the mobile unit," Soto says.

You might have seen the van around Tucson, especially at night. The van crew's main job is going to places where STDs could be spread, then getting people into the van so they can be tested.

There's a very good and potentially frightening reason why the health workers can test for more than one STD at a time.

"When you're exposed to one, you're potentially exposed to all the others," says Pima County Health Department Nurse Supervisor Richard May.

It's May's job to try to keep people from infecting each other. Yes, it's even people who believe they are in monogamous relationships.

He wants to end the risk.

"The element of not testing people, understanding that they're having intimate contact with their partners, or partners' partners and the importance of testing and just knowing what your status is, not just with HIV, but with STDs. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis," May says.

Which brings us back to the van. The relaxed atmosphere helps people open up, especially about their partners.

Their partners may need to be tested, too.

County workers then try to contact those people who often are shocked.

"The best thing that we really can do is just acknowledge, as we do, acknowledge that someone cared enough about them to share that information with them," May says.

Now, about that hot spot that's growing in popularity, that can't be found on any map, and that is helping spread sexually transmitted diseases.

It's the Internet.

May says often it's social media, the thing most of us use to connect with family and friends. Some, without knowing it, have used it to connect to an STD from someone they have come to trust.

"That trust is actually what is creating more of an problem for people getting infected because you don't have to tell the truth. People do falsify their stories to acquire what they're looking for," May says.

Then there are the people who have no idea they're infected.

Another warning comes from Robert Knight.

He says the face of AIDS has changed.

"So what happens is people think, well, if you don't look sick, then I can go ahead and I can engage in risky behavior," Knight says.

Miguel Soto says, "People need to realize that it's still out there. It's still people getting infected."

Soto helps man the mobile health clinic.

"Look for us," he says. "We're testing after dark. So that's one of our new tag lines is 'testing after dark.' So we're going out to find you and you can find us.

If you are wondering about the actual effect of social media and other web sites is on the spread of STDs, take a look at this.

Pima County just came out with some new numbers.

The county health department says people using the internet to hook-up are behind a spike in syphilis cases.

The county says in 2012, there were 31 cases.

In 2013, there were 53 syphilis cases.

As of today, there are 71 cases of syphilis in Pima County. That's more than double the 2012 number.

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