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AIDS EPIDEMIC ISN'T OVER



Published: Thu, July 11, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Philadelphia Inquirer: The 14th International AIDS Conference opened in Barcelona, Spain, this week with depressing news.

Results of a study conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a majority of HIV-positive young gay and bisexual men in America have no idea they are infected with the AIDS virus.

The level of AIDS cluelessness is especially pronounced for minorities, the study found. Ninety-one percent of the black men and 70 percent of Hispanic men surveyed did not know they were infected and, in fact, thought they were at low risk for catching AIDS despite engaging in unsafe sexual practices. (That also was true of 60 percent of white men surveyed.)

Those grim figures are related to other bad news about the face of American AIDS: Most new HIV infections -- 55 percent -- are among black men and women, even though they constitute only 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Clearly, AIDS education and prevention efforts have broken down, failing to reach a new generation of potential HIV/AIDS victims. Failure to fix the breakdown will lead to a rise in AIDS cases.

Prime spreaders

Young men who think they're doing nothing risky -- when in fact they already are infected -- will be the prime spreaders of a new wave of the deadly, incurable disease. Scientific advances -- the development of drugs that forestall full-blown AIDS or death in many patients -- have contributed to the relaxation of AIDS fears.

A common misperception is that, thanks to the new drugs, AIDS isn't the big deal it used to be.

"I've had people say to me, 'If I'm infected, fine, I'll take a pill. ... Look at Magic Johnson, he looks better than I do now,"' said Gary Bell of Philadelphia's BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues) group. Donations have dropped: The AIDS Fund in Philadelphia raised $1.4 million during its annual AIDS walk in 1996 and about $770,000 last fall.

Government AIDS funding remains stagnant. For the second consecutive year, the Bush administration has proposed flat funding levels for the CDC's AIDS prevention efforts.

That's deplorable. But the blame spreads far and wide. In the black community, many churches, civil rights and fraternal organizations continue to ignore black gay men and their issues. The U.S. health-care system lets them down. The same men who don't know they are HIV positive "don't know if they're at risk for prostate cancer or hypertension," said Phill Wilson, of the national African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute.

Minority men themselves -- especially those who have sex with other men but don't consider themselves either gay or at risk -- engage in a dangerous game of denial.

America is falling asleep at the wheel on AIDS. And the deadly crash has already begun.




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