A message on social media that reported escalating HIV cases in Cherokee County went viral last week before local health officials confirmed it was fabricated.
On Wednesday, Feb. 26, the @NSU_confess Twitter account tweeted “ALERT: Since December 2013, 87 people have tested positive for HIV in the city of Tahlequah! 43 of them were NSU students! Get tested!” As of Friday evening, the tweet had received 11 favorites and been retweeted 33 times.
“This seems like an inaccurate rumor. Based upon the historical data of Cherokee County over the past 30 years, it appears fabricated,” said Karen Sherwood, community health programs coordinator with the Cherokee County Health Department.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, kills the body’s CD4 cells. CD4 cells help a body fight off infection and disease. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection. HIV is spread through contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk of a person infected with HIV. Though HIV tests are confidential, all positive tests must be reported by the facilitator to the Oklahoma State Department of Health within 24 hours.
From 1982 to 2012, there were eight cases of HIV diagnosed in Cherokee County. The average HIV rate for Cherokee County is 70 percent lower that the state rate, according to 2000 State of the State’s Health report. A quick facts sheet supplied by the HIV/STD Surveillance and Analysis office indicates 202 HIV cases were newly diagnosed in Oklahoma in 2012.
Terrainia Harris, manager of the HIV/STD Surveillance and Analysis for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said the statistics for 2013 are not yet available. All raw data from across the state has to be collected and analyzed, and the 2013 stats will be released in June 2014.
“We are careful in releasing small population cells data and would never release statistics that quickly. If there was an extreme change in the number of cases, the health department would take responsibility to protect public health,” said Harris.
Northeastern State University Student Health Services receives a grant to administer free HIV tests. Students are encouraged to call for appointments, but walk-ins are accepted.
Nikki Murray, NSU Health Services promotion and education coordinator, has specialized in HIV awareness promotion for two years. She encourages students to visit health services if they have concerns.
“Since 2011, I have not heard of any positive tests at NSU,” said Murray.
Since Tahlequah has a university and a younger demographic, the chances of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease may be higher than some towns, according to Sherwood. She said the CCHD offers free and confidential STD and HIV testing for all residents.
“Most STDs do not have signs or symptoms, and most are preventable and curable,” said Sherwood. “We want everyone to come get tested and get treatment, if needed. It is important to use protection and take responsibility.”
Health department employees were at the recent NSU health fair, handing out information and their “brown-bag special.” The bags contain brochures on abstinence and disease prevention, as well as condoms. They are available at the CCHD during office hours, and there is no fee nor an appointment required.
“The number one way to prevent STDs and HIV is through condom use,” said Sherwood.
All county health departments offer free, confidential HIV testing. A state HIV counselor is available, along with resources about medical care and treatment for those who test positive.
More information can be found at www.ok.gov/health or from the HIV/STD Hotline at (800) 535-2437. To contact the Cherokee County Health Department, call (918) 456-8826, and for NSU Health Services call (918) 444-2126.