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By Giff Johnson For Variety

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (September 27, 2002 – Marianas Variety)---The HIV virus has been confirmed on Ebeye Island, ending the Marshall Islands claim to be an HIV/AIDS-free country.

The first HIV infection to be diagnosed in a Marshall Islander in nearly 10 years was discovered earlier this month on Ebeye, the Marshall Islands’ second largest urban center.

"It’s just one case, but it is a big problem for us," Dr. Tom Jack, Ebeye hospital’s interim chief of staff, said.

The HIV-positive patient was identified through regular hospital screening. Doctors indicated their belief that the person was infected locally on Ebeye.

Ebeye is home to about 11,000 residents, many of whom work at the neighboring U.S. Army missile testing range at Kwajalein that is the center of missile defense programs.

Majuro Hospital’s director of public health Dr. Kennar Briand said that an HIV-positive person can be infected for years without realizing it — and continue to infect others — because symptoms may not show for many years.

Jack said the Ebeye hospital is currently contacting the patient’s list of "acquaintances" one-by-one and asking them to "please get tested for HIV."

The Marshall Islands has been officially listed as having nine HIV/AIDS cases. But those include several Americans from the Kwajalein missile range, and all were identified in the early-1990s, with no new cases diagnosed since then.

Eric Lindborg, chief of medical staff at the U.S. Army hospital at Kwajalein, said that the Marshall Islands has avoided the HIV epidemic that has "been a disaster for medical system in places such as Africa. In a place like the Marshall Islands, where they are already struggling to provide adequate medical care, even a handful of cases, let alone an epidemic of AIDS, would devastate their capability to provide medical services."

Briand confirmed the burden that AIDS will put on hospital services. "We may not be able to deal with large numbers of AIDS cases," he said. "We need to emphasize prevention more because there are no drugs to treat it."

Briand said that although blood screening in Majuro has to date not confirmed any HIV/AIDS cases, there are likely to be people with the HIV virus living in Majuro. During 2001, 2,845 people were tested for the HIV virus in Majuro, the Marshall Islands capital. No positive cases of HIV were identified through this testing, according to public health statistics.

Confirming that sexually transmitted diseases are a growing problem in Majuro, Public Health records show that the percentage of syphilis cases in Majuro nearly doubled from 1999 to 2001. In 1999, 74 people out of 1,845 screened were found positive with syphilis, a four percent positive rate. Last year, the number leaped to 130 out of 1,835 people screened, a rate of 7.1 percent.

The Ministry of Health in Majuro does not also routinely test syphilis-positive blood for HIV. Briand said that syphilis positive blood samples should also be tested for HIV exposure. But, he added, this is not always done in Majuro. Follow up HIV screening on syphilis-positive blood samples "needs to be strengthened," he said.

For additional reports from the Marianas Variety, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ Marianas Variety.

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