The number of HIV infections and other cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has increased year by year in San Luis Obispo County since the 1990s. Employees at the Cal Poly Health Center link this increase to unprotected sex.
According to the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, 825 people have been diagnosed with HIV in the county since 1983, with 16 of those cases reported in 2015 alone. Fatality rates overall have fallen substantially since the 1980s and early 1990s — when HIV/AIDS had as high as a 95.8 percent fatality rate in San Luis Obispo — to approximately 41 percent in 2013. However, deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have increased from an average of two deaths per year from 2006 to 2009 to an average of 12 deaths per year from 2010 to 2013.
Though not as deadly as during the 1980s and early 1990s, San Luis Obispo County saw an uptick in AIDS/HIV deaths from 2011 to 2013.
The Health Center reported that it diagnosed three students as HIV positive over the last five years. Executive Director of Campus Health & Wellbeing Dr. David Harris cites that the Health Center has tested 1,865 people in San Luis Obispo — 447 females and 1,418 males.
“And we have a total of three positive HIV tests out of over 1,800 … It’s a minuscule number,” Harris said.
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Despite the relatively small number of HIV positive cases processed through the Health Center, Harris and Dr. Aaron Baker, medical director at the Health Center, said that a steady increase in cases of other STIs at Cal Poly and in San Luis Obispo County could point to increased vulnerability to HIV.
“Chlamydia is sort of the canary in the coal mine,” Baker said. “HIV is present on the campus and it is a disease for which there is no cure. It can be controlled and helped, but there is no cure for it … We’re finding based on the chlamydia studies that chlamydia is being transmitted, which makes us concerned that HIV is at risk of being transmitted as well.”
According to San Luis Obispo County Public Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chlamydia is the most common STI in San Luis Obispo and in the nation. Chlamydia is often asymptomatic in its early stages, meaning that a carrier likely would not know they had the infection until getting tested.
Based on statistics published by the California Department of Public Health’s STD Control Branch, chlamydia rates in San Luis Obispo increased consistently since 1997.
From 2005 to 2015, cases of chlamydia increased 84 percent from 213.3 cases per 100,000 people to 392.2 cases per 100,000 people. As of 2015, San Luis Obispo County ranks 24th of California’s 58 counties in chlamydia rates, but is below the state and national averages of 486.1 and 479.0 cases per 100,000 people, respectively.
Almost two-thirds of these cases are females. People between the ages of 20 and 24 years make up the largest proportion of chlamydia cases at 463 cases out of the total 1,083 cases for the county in 2015. The 15- to 19-year-old age range is the second most prevalent, at 279 cases in the same year.
In the report, the California Department of Public Health acknowledged that better methods of testing for chlamydia have been developed and may explain in part the increase of reported chlamydia cases, in addition to a true increase of cases.
Even so, Harris said the rise of chlamydia cases over the years is an indicator that people are continuing to engage in unprotected sex.
“What concerns us very much is that if our chlamydia infection rates are increasing that is our benchmark indicator that people aren’t wearing condoms,” Harris said. “And if they aren’t wearing condoms, then they’re going to be more susceptible to the other STIs, including HIV. So while it doesn’t reflect in our specific Health Center statistics, it would not be surprising that there are increasing rates
If the Health Center diagnoses students as HIV positive, it refers them to the Access Support Network in downtown San Luis Obispo for care.
“If we do diagnose someone as positive for HIV, [we] refer the patient to the AIDS network in town because they have access to physicians that are certified to care for HIV infection,” Harris said. “And they then can also avail themselves of all the expert counseling and so forth that they’re going to need for pretty much the rest of their life.”
The Health Center recommends that students take advantage of campus services that give barrier contraceptives, like condoms, away for free. According to the Dean of Students’ website, free condoms and dental dams are available for free at the Gender Equity Center as well.
Additional information regarding resources and support for students with HIV/AIDS and San Luis Obispo County’s anonymous HIV testing is available on the Campus Health and Wellbeing’s website.