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Long Beach Has Alarmingly High Rates Of HIV And Other STDs

(Photo by JD Thomas via Flickr Creative Commons)
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Long Beach is facing an uncomfortable truth: it's been over 30 years since the AIDS crisis hit the U.S., but the local rate of sexually transmitted diseases is on the rise.

While the rate of new HIV infections in Long Beach has actually gone down in recent years, it is still twice as high as the statewide rate. And STD rates in Long Beach are up, with sharp increases in reported cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia -- local gonorrhea rates alone have increased by a whopping 267% since 2012.

The Long Beach Comprehensive Planning Group, made up of representatives from the LGBTQ community, doctors, social service agencies and the city's health department, has spent the past two years figuring out how to combat the problem. At a press conference Monday, Mayor Robert Garcia announced the results of the group's work, a new report that lays out a plan to tackle the problem on multiple fronts.

"As not just the mayor but also as a gay man, it's incredibly important for me...that we address this in a way that is sensitive to the issue," Garcia said, calling the rates of infection "unacceptable."

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Courtesy City of Long Beach/ Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services

Long Beach is the second largest city in L.A. County, with nearly half a million people. It's also one of the most diverse cities in the country. As of December 31, 2017, the report estimates that 4,520 Long Beach resident were living with HIV -- 80% of them were men who have sex with other men. (The report is careful to clarify that not all men who have sex with other men identify as gay...more on that here for the curious.)

The HIV rates are generally proportional to the population along racial lines -- for instance, 45% of Long Beach residents are Latino and 41% of those newly infected with HIV are Latino. For white residents, it's 26% of the total population versus 24% of the infected population. But there is one notable exception -- black residents have twice the rate of HIV infection compared with the rest of the population.

Even though the rate of new HIV cases in Long Beach (26 people per 100,000) has decreased overall since 2012, it's still much higher than the rest of California (13 per 100,000) and Los Angeles (19 per 100,000), despite the availability of preventative treatments like PrEP and PEP.

Courtesy City of Long Beach/ Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services

The city's health officer, Dr. Anissa Davis, cited the rise of data apps like Tinder, which came out in 2012, as well as the stigma surrounding LGBTQ health.

There have been a few regional studies elsewhere that make the connection between dating apps to STD's -- Grindr was linked to over half of all syphilis cases in New Zealand in 2012 and an NYU study found that Craigslist contributed to a 16% increase in HIV cases between 1999 and 2008, across 33 states. Some public health officials have gone so far as to call dating apps "digital bathhouses." But the research on this is limited because (surprise!) the dating app companies don't want to release their data to scientists for fear that they'll be negatively associated with STD's. Others argue that blaming dating apps for the rise of STD's is just the latest form ofsex shaming.

The Long Beach report also points out that federal funding for STD control efforts decreased by $21 million between 2003 and 2016.

"A lot of the organizations at the table are also now receiving less support from our federal partners and other partners to do the important work that is happening all across the city, and across the country," Garcia said.

Courtesy City of Long Beach/ Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services
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STD's are on the rise nationally, according to the CDC. New cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis rose to a record high of 2.3 million in 2017, for the fourth year in a row. In the CDC's report, the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS and STD prevention said that nationally, "We are sliding backwards."

One other terrifying reason for the potential increase? Gonorrhea is increasingly becoming resistant to antibiotics. Both Gonorrhea and chlamydia can often go unnoticed because not everyone has visible symptoms, says the CDC.

Long Beach plans to invest $2 million in strategies to help reduce the rate of infections. That includes educating 100 health providers per year on STD/HIV/PrEP & PEP care, conducting workshops for 4,000 teens and young adults per year, providing HIV/STD education at community events, and expanding educational outreach to disproportionately affected communities, like black, gay men.

There are also plans to get more Long Beach residents on PrEP, which can reduce the risk of getting infected by 90%), and PEP, which can be taken up to 72 hours after a high risk sexual encounter.

"We also want to provide guidelines to transform medical offices to be sex positive and stigma and barrier-free for clients and patients who access their services," Davis said.

The planning group also plans to look at their data to see where the gaps are in HIV/STD services -- one of those gaps, Davis said, is in North Long Beach, which has a higher population of black men.

The city's main goal is to reduce HIV infection rates by 50% by 2022.

"You're going to see our partners in the health department everywhere talking about this issue," Garcia said. "It's something that I think is not discussed enough."

Emily Dugdale and Brian Frank contributed reporting to this story.