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Big HIV Problem Hits Small S.D. College Town

April 27, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A South Dakota college basketball player who tested positive for HIV was arrested this week in a case that has led health officials to two other new infections and what they are calling "a web of sexual contacts" that numbers in the hundreds.

The cases--and the great number of people believed exposed--have rocked a state that last year reported only 22 new HIV cases.

Nikko Briteramos, an 18-year-old freshman at tiny SiTanka Huron University, was charged Tuesday with knowingly having unprotected sex since learning of his HIV status last month. His infection was detected through routine surveillance when he gave blood during a school drive.

"After that individual knew that he was HIV positive . . . he was discovered having unprotected sex with a partner who did not know," Gov. William Janklow said Friday at a news conference. "That, my friends, is no different from pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger."

The 6-foot-7 center arrived in Huron in August from Chicago. Already, two individuals known to have had contact with him have tested positive for the virus. Scores more who tested negative initially have been told they must be retested over the next six months.

Briteramos is the first person to be charged under a two-year-old state law that makes it a felony to intentionally expose someone to HIV. He was charged with five felony counts, which prosecutors said are related to a single partner. If convicted, he faces up to 75 years in prison and $75,000 in fines.

Within hours of the positive test result in late March, public health officials interviewed Briteramos and began contacting the list of recent sexual contacts he provided them.

Janklow said Friday that one woman provided names of 70 people who need to be informed of the problem. The numbers involved have shocked people in Huron, where the 100-year-old school is a major employer. The tribal university has an enrollment of about 600 students.

"I think what's really surprising people are the numbers," said John Deniger, who owns an auto dealership and sits on the university's foundation board. "One individual supposedly had 70 contacts. I don't think it's normal for anywhere."

Deniger said the community of 13,000 has pulled together in recent days, with educational meetings at the high school as well as on the university campus.

Public health officials said the cases have been "eye-opening" for people in a state where there has been little fear of contracting HIV/AIDS. "Now we are getting a lot of people off the street who have heard the risk factors and are scared and want to be tested," said state Secretary of Health Doneen Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth said the state this year has reports of nine new HIV infections, making this cluster in one location particularly alarming. She said it will be months before they know how many infections can be traced to Briteramos.

In addition, public health officials have had to contact other state health departments for help in tracking down individuals who had contact with any of the three new cases. Hollingsworth said that, while officials believe most of the people were exposed through sex, they cannot rule out shared needles during drug use.

South Dakota has consistently ranked second lowest in HIV infection rates. Janklow said Friday that the episode has been sobering for residents in a state known for wide-open spaces and quiet living.

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