King County sees sharp rise in HIV cases linked to needle use

SEATTLE -- Health officials in King County are warning the public after they noticed a sharp rise in HIV cases among people who were initially thought to be at low-risk.

Public Health officials said they are seeing a rise in HIV infections among heterosexual injection drug users in Seattle.

"This is unusual because previously HIV infection among heterosexual injection drug users or persons who inject drugs and don't have another risk factor has been uncommon in King County," said Dr. Jeff Duchin with Public Health- Seattle & King County.

So far this year, 19 heterosexuals have tested positive for HIV in King County.

Last year, 7 cases were reported.

Duchin attributes this increase to the rise in methamphetamine use among opioid users.

Meth use was primarily used in the homosexual community, said Duchin. But now officials are seeing overdose victims, regardless of their sexual preference, with meth and opioids in their system.

"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. There is a large number of susceptible people who are practicing risky behaviors that can promote the spread of HIV. Up until now, HIV had not really been circulating in that community which has been very fortunate for them and us," said Duchin.

Since February, Public Health has identified a cluster of eight people with HIV in north Seattle. They all told health officials they were recently homeless and used illicit drugs.

Public Health discovered these cases through a combination of routine HIV testing, investigation of newly reported cases and HIV testing outreach efforts.

They alerted health care providers in King County three weeks ago, and are increasing outreach and testing programs.