HIV in the Suburbs: ‘The Mindset Needs to Change’
The battle against HIV and AIDS in Waukesha County is on high alert for one local woman, and she thinks some real changes need to be made to the suburban mindset.
To some, the battle against HIV and AIDS may appear to be raging elsewhere, but rarely do people imagine the fight happening in their own backyard.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services recently updated its data regarding HIV and AIDS, and the numbers may be surprising. In Wisconsin, Waukesha County has the sixth-highest number of people living with HIV or AIDS, with Milwaukee and Dane counties significantly higher.
What’s more surprising is the number of people getting infected isn’t decreasing. The infection peaked in 1990, but for the past decade, the number of people getting infected each year has remained relatively the same.
Wisconsin's infection rate is still about one-third that of the nation as whole, but the to Corrie Fulwiler, the county's consistant rate is a cause for concern.
Fulwiler, is the executive director and founder of Richard’s Place in Waukesha, the only organization in the state that provides 24-hour care to people with AIDS. And after operating for almost 15 years, Fulwiler has noticed a sad trend among area residents.
“The denial is so great in this area,” Fulwiler admits. “It just seems like HIV is still something nobody wants to talk about. There’s still such a thinking of, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ There’s this mindset that there’s nothing to worry about, and that’s really concerning.”
“A lot of people aren’t getting tested until they’re sick, so by the time someone is referred to us, they’ve already got full-blown AIDS.”
The state confirms that there are 162 people living with HIV or AIDS in Waukesha County right now, but 188 people have been confirmed to have the disease since 1983. Of that number, 86 percent were male, and 57 percent got the infection from sleeping with another man. The state doesn’t have data showing where in the county they live.
But these numbers are starkly different from neighboring Milwaukee County, undoubtedly the area with the most infections. In total, there are almost 3,200 people with HIV and AIDS now living in Milwaukee County, and 52 percent of those people aren’t just positive, they have AIDS.
“A lot of people aren’t getting tested until they’re sick, so by the time someone is referred to us, they’ve already got full-blown AIDS,” Fulwiler said. “That, I think, is a big problem and is something that’s sad to see.”
"It’s gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Not getting tested and not knowing is a huge problem, Fulwiler says, and the Center for Disease Control agrees. The organization estimates that 21 percent of people living with HIV aren’t even aware they have it, meaning there could be upwards of 8,300 people living with the disease in Wisconsin today.
The state says there are seven counties that make up 75 percent of Wisconsin's infections. Shown with the number of people alive with the disease today, they are:
- Milwaukee – 3,186
- Dane – 835
- Kenosha – 242
- Brown – 217
- Racine – 191
- Waukesha – 162
- Rock – 158
Even with Waukesha being low on the list, Fulwiler says ignoring the issue isn’t effective. What’s more is that she predicts an increase in infections in Waukesha County because of the recent string of IV drug use. With heroin use on the rise in Waukesha County, Fulwiler thinks the infection rate will spike once the users start getting tested.
Drug use and high-risk sexual activity are among the leading causes of infection, and with her two housing facilities “constantly full,” Fulwiler knows something’s got to give.
“The whole mindset of ‘We don’t have those kind of problems,’ needs to change,” said Fulwiler. “Whether people are infected from drug use or whatever else, they’re still HIV positive. It’s gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.”