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New HIV threat found in Seattle

Seattle- Four men in King County have been diagnosed with a strain of HIV that is extremely hard to treat, and health officials are concerned it could spread further.

At least two types of HIV drugs don’t work against the strain, and another type has limited effectiveness, officials from Public Health — Seattle & King County said Thursday.

“It’s conceivable there can be more infections, and the gay community is at highest risk,” said Dr. Bob Wood, the HIV/AIDS program director for Public Health.

All the men were diagnosed with the strain as soon as they tested positive for the virus — unlike other HIV patients who develop drug resistance over time, often from taking medications inconsistently, Wood said. But there is no evidence the strain is rapidly spreading.

The four known cases were found over the course of more than a year. These were the only such cases reported in the state.

Wood said all of the infected men are gay and have had multiple partners, most anonymous. They also used methamphetamine, which tends to increase sexual activity.

Public-health officials have found some of the patients’ partners, and so far none has the resistant strain. But many others have not been found because the men had anonymous sexual encounters, Wood said.

No one yet knows how easily this particular strain may be transmitted to others. There is no evidence it was spread to Seattle from another city.

Still, Wood said the cases should serve as an early warning because “they show there is some ongoing transmission.”

“We’re very concerned about gay men becoming more complacent and not using condoms,” said Wood. Studies in Seattle and other cities have verified that gay men in recent years have been engaging in more unsafe sex.
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Physicians don’t believe the new strain will cause the infected patients to progress more rapidly to full-blown AIDS. But once they do have AIDS, finding the right combination of drugs to control the virus could be difficult.

“If it’s not controlled at all, they do poorly,” said Dr. Bob Harrington, director of the Harborview Medical Center’s Madison Clinic, which treats HIV patients.

Harrington said treating patients who are resistant to several types of drugs could cost more than twice the typical $15,000 a year that it costs to treat other HIV patients.

About 350 to 400 new cases of HIV infection are reported in King County each year. About 8,000 county residents are living with the virus, including those with AIDS.

Public Health plans to distribute fliers in gay bars and bathhouses warning of the new strain. And Wood said physicians are being asked to test all newly diagnosed HIV patients for drug resistance and report them to the health department.

Health officials urge gay men who have unprotected sex with multiple partners, use methamphetamines or have another sexually transmitted disease to get tested for HIV every three months.

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