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'Disease Intervention Specialists' track down partners of those with STDs

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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

You could call them health care bounty hunters - every year, they help track down hundreds of Virginians who may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted diseases.

Margie Benko's job is anything but boring. Her car is often her office. Her mission? Stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

"I really believe that public health is a very important part of keeping our communities healthy and strong and vibrant," said Benko.

Margie is a Disease Intervention Specialist, or DIS for short. Not quite the job you dream about as a kid.

"I always tell people, 'Never a dull day,' and that's what I love about it," said Benko.

She makes sure people who test positive for STD's are aware and get treatment.

"Sometimes you're in your car traveling to go visit someone who maybe doesn't know that they have HIV. Or it's taking care of someone who just had syphilis and they need more information about what the disease means for them."

At times, her job is a cross between a private investigator and detective. She's tracking the path of syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV.

"If they don't know anything more than a first name, a description and that they work at a drug store, then that's where the investigative hat comes on," said Benko.

She's often on her computer using the Internet to track down information. But more often than not-- she hits the road. "A lot of times its getting in my car and maybe going out to these locations, maybe knocking on doors, still keeping everything confidential."

She discreetly alerts loved ones or former sexual partners they may have been exposed. She never reveals a patient's information.

"I approach it, this is someone who cared about your health, thought that you could benefit from a test."

Often people are shocked when she's at the door.

"A lot of times folks will look at me and say this is all a joke, how do I know that you're for real?" said Benko.

She's able to test on the spot and always carries a needle to draw blood. If someone needs more time to process information, she sets them up at their area health department. All the tests are free.

"I feel like I'm just a little bit of the puzzle... to try to help folks get the information that they need."

There are more than 40 DIS workers like Margie across the state. She covers Henrico, Hanover, Goochland and New Kent. It's estimated these workers along with other health department programs helped save the commonwealth more than $29 million in direct and indirect healthcare costs. DIS prevented 339 cases of syphilis-related sequelae, 150 new cases from occurring and one congenital syphilis case.

"That's my goal to try to stop the spread of it, reduce the numbers that are out there and to make my district a healthier one to live in," said Benko.

She says the biggest change she's seen over the last 20 years are the new treatments that are available for HIV and Aids. She says the disease is no longer a death sentence. There's no cure, but if people are treated, they are living long lives.

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