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HIV & syphilis cluster in Milwaukee prompts education and testing efforts

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Milwaukee is among one of the worst cities in the nation for sexually transmitted diseases after a large outbreak of HIV and syphilis hit the city. Now, advocates and doctors from Milwaukee to Madison are pushing for education and testing to keep the cluster from spreading. 

"If this isn't a wake up call for the City of Milwaukee and parents throughout the area, I don't know what will be," said Michael Gifford, the president of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. 

Milwaukee is facing a shocking spike in HIV and syphilis cases, with all patients in a cluster or social network. Officials say all those involved were connected with each other over the past 12 months. 

Advocates say, if not managed properly, it's easy for a cluster to spread to other nearby cities, including Madison. 

"Those viruses and bacteria - they don't care what the geopolitical boundaries are. They can cross county lines, they're not limited to staying in one particular spot, especially with how easy it is to get from point a to point b," said Bill Keeton, also with the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. 

So far, the outbreak in Milwaukee has affected 127 people. 76 of those have tested positive for HIV, syphilis of both. Those who have the STI's include young teens,, according to health officials. 

"I think there is a sense of invulnerability and invincibility especially among folks who are in their early 20s," said Keeton. 

Between 40 and 50 percent of high school-aged students are sexually active, according to Keeton. It's why he and others are urging education and STI testing.  

"Parents need to be talking to their kids about safer sex, where to get condoms and how to use them," he said. "This is something that needs to be at the front of the mind for everyone."

A conversation those in Milwaukee and in Madison hope happens sooner rather than later. 

"There are parents out there who will only begin to understand it when it happens to their child, and it may be too late," said Tony Snell, with Milwaukee's LGBT Community Center.

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