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DULUTH - In a special report, FOX 21's Dan Hanger gets exclusive access to HIV data for 2012 that's not normally released until early next year. But there's some concern this time around.
The Minnesota Health Department says St. Louis County normally sees an average of three new HIV cases a year. But this year – so far -- the county has already seen four times that amount with 12 new cases reported. And of those 12, all but one are right here in Duluth.
But while the numbers may seem startling, health officials stress it's too early to call the spike a trend.But they say it's never too early to talk about this deadly epidemic.
"My name's Bobby Long. I'm 38 years old. I'm from South Carolina originally and I've been living in Minneapolis the last year."
Long is also one of more than 7,000 people in Minnesota living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or better known as HIV.
"You know, it's so important for me to come out as being someone who's HIV positive, so I can put a face on the illness," Long said. "It's easy to marginalize someone who's HIV positive. It's very difficult, I think, to marginalize your neighbor, nephew, your son, your co-worker, your boss."
While Long is a gay man and a former drug user, which are two categories considered high risk for getting HIV, health officials urge all sexually active people – men, women, black, white, gay or straight -- to wake up and know they're not immune to the disease.
"Everyone is potentially at risk for HIV," said Peter Carr, the AIDS director for the Minnesota Dept. of Health.
Carr keeps track of statistics, and has a staff who works directly with people newly diagnosed to try to track down where that person might have gotten the virus to stop it from continuing to spread.
"The estimate nationally is 20 percent of people are living with it and don't know they're infected. So, that translates into about 16-hundred people in Minnesota," Carr said.
"We're almost 32 years into this epidemic. We have forgotten about it and we can't forget about it. People are still dying from HIV. People are still getting infected from HIV," said Bill Tiedemann, exec. director of Minnesota Aids Project.
The non-profit agency has a mission to stop HIV through prevention, advocacy, awareness and services.
"Why not protect yourself from a disease? It's available to you. It's simple. Use condoms. Get tested. Have conversations," Tiedemann said.
But he along with Carr agree those conversations seem to be dwindling away, especially among young people, because getting HIV is no longer a death sentence like in the 80s and 90s."They think they may be immune to it. A concern of ours from a policy perspective is that we don't talk about this in schools that there's an opportunity for us to educate our youth through comprehensive sexual health," Tiedemann said.
"I think the issue is it's not so scary, and if I get it, whatever, I take a pill once a day and I'm good to go. But that's not the case. We're talking about expensive powerful drugs, and taking them for a lifetime," Carr said.
The second part of this story will air Thursday night on FOX 21 News at 9 p.m.