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Cases rise in county

HIV, AIDS

March 14, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Washington County leads Western Maryland in the number of HIV and AIDS cases, which have more than tripled in the county since 1997.

While most of the cases in the county were the result of men having sex with other men, the number of heterosexual females with the illnesses are on the rise, said Jenny Taylor-Gray, Washington County Health Department's HIV program supervisor.

The county ranks eighth in the state in the reported number of HIV and AIDS cases, according to the Maryland AIDS Administration's 2004 HIV/AIDS Report.

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In 2003 - the most recent year for which numbers are available - 238 people were known to have HIV or AIDS in Washington County, up from 76 in 1997.

Of the 238 people, 142 were HIV positive and 96 had AIDS, according to the report.

The statistics do not include the number of inmates with HIV or AIDS at the state prisons just outside of Hagerstown or at the Washington County Detention Center.

The county has the 10th-largest population in the state, with 134,246 people, according to the 2000 Census.

Frederick County, Md., which the 2000 Census said has a population of 195,277, had 215 cases in 2003, according to the AIDS Administration.

Also in Western Maryland, Allegany County had 52 cases and Garrett County had eight cases. Both counties have smaller populations than Washington County.

Taylor-Gray said the number of county residents with HIV is most likely higher than reported because many people probably aren't aware they have the virus.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is caused by the HIV virus. People can be infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) for several years before getting sick and developing AIDS, according to AIDS.org on the Web.

HIV can be spread by sexual contact with an infected partner, contact with infected blood, among injection drug users by the sharing of contaminated needles or syringes, or from a woman to her baby during pregnancy or birth, according to the AIDS Administration.

Most of the people with the illnesses are between the ages of 40 and 49, according to the report.

Teenagers also are getting infected with HIV, but they typically don't know it until they're in their 20s or 30s, Taylor-Gray said.

"Youth are not being tested like we would like," Taylor-Gray said. "They don't find out that they have HIV until they're hospitalized and very ill."

Early detection and treatment can improve the long-term health of an infected person, according to AIDS.org.

Men make up 76 percent of the cases in Washington County, while 24 percent are females, Taylor-Gray said.

Over the next several years, she said she thinks the percentages will even out to about 50-50 because more females are becoming infected.

"Unfortunately, for them, they've just gotten with the wrong partner," she said.

She said there have been cases in which people knew they were infected and continued to engage in risky behavior, potentially spreading the virus.

Others might not know they are HIV positive, and therefore, might unknowingly put others at risk, she said.

"If you think it can't happen to you, you're wrong," Taylor-Gray said. "This disease knows no barriers."

Taylor-Gray said continuing efforts to educate people about the virus, in particular those who are at high risk of getting it, is key in preventing HIV from spreading.

In addition, she said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering prevention strategies, such as making HIV testing part of annual physicals.

"One of the keys to prevention is determining who's positive, and then through education, we can begin to impact behavior," Taylor-Gray said.

The Health Department offers case-management services provided by a community health nurse and a medical social worker to those who are HIV positive or diagnosed with AIDS.

The department also offers free, confidential HIV tests. Anyone interested in a free test can call 240-313-3231. Taylor-Gray said those who are HIV positive and have questions can call her at 240-313-3331.

"The key is to get tested, get tested regularly and change your behavior," she said. "And if you are infected, get into treatment and prevent others from getting infected."

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