WSAZ Investigates | Tracking HIV in West Virginia

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Just five months into 2019, HIV in Cabell County is growing at a rapid pace.

Health officials do HIV testing at the Covenant House in Charleston every Tuesday in exchange for a $10 gift card.

We first reported on May 6 - Cabell County has 46 new HIV cases. Since then, we've been digging to find out if this recent spike is isolated or something health officials are seeing across West Virginia. But getting those numbers from the agency responsible to keep track of HIV hasn't been easy.

Michael Kilkenny, director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, says the 46 new cases is just a cluster and not an outbreak because the cases appear to be linked. However, WSAZ has found on average that the county only sees about eight cases annually.

Kilkenny says these cases are primarily identified in drug users, so the general public isn't in immediate danger.

"There can be very serious problems in your community that you don't have to panic about," Kilkenny said.

He says they expect to see more cases in the future.

"We expect that as we continue to work, and we are working very vigorously at identifying new cases, that that number is going to continue to go up."

Health officials in Kanawha County say it would be naive to think this couldn't spread.

"Given what we know about the spread of infectious diseases, in my opinion it was really just a matter of time before it happens," said Christine Teague, program director for the CAMC Ryan White program.

In Charleston, HIV testing is done every Tuesday at the Covenant House.

Teague confirms in the past month, they've tested more than 200 people for HIV and have reported one positive case to the state.

"We just don't want it to emerge out into other populations and that is why it is very important that we sort of work with and contain the problem that is ongoing right now," Teague said.

WSAZ's Leanne Shinkle reached out to the Department of Health and Human Resources on May 13, asking for all reported cases of HIV in West Virginia so far in 2019. The next day, the agency responded to an email by saying, "We are happy to gather the information for your story."

But before 5 p.m. that very same day, we were told those numbers don't exist due to a low incidence in the state. Instead, we were sent statewide numbers from previous years.

From 2012-2016, Kanawha County had the most reported cases with 44 in four years. To put that into perspective, that's almost the same amount Cabell County has seen during the past 12 months.

On the state's website it says new HIV cases have to be reported to the state within one week. Sources also tell us DHHR just held an HIV conference on May 10 to discuss new numbers in the state.

At that point, WSAZ's Leanne Shinkle went into the DHHR office on May 16 to ask more questions in person about how the state tracks new cases.

She was turned away and told no one present could speak to her, but they would send the numbers in an email as soon as possible. Four days have gone by, and those numbers still have not been sent.

WSAZ filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requesting HIV cases for the past nine years, including the first five months of this year.

A representative from the state responded, saying the request has been forwarded to their legal department. As soon WSAZ gets the numbers, we will release it here first.

This is a developing story. Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.