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More HIV and AIDS cases still reported - after 25 years

June 26, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

In 1996, Jenny Taylor-Gray thought taking a job as an HIV and AIDS counselor was an unwise career move.

By the mid-1990s, it was well-known how human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that leads to AIDS, is spread. And since HIV infection is easily prevented by taking certain precautions, Taylor-Gray figured it wouldn't be too long before HIV was eliminated and she'd be out of a job.

Today, as the Washington County program supervisor for HIV services, Taylor-Gray's job security is guaranteed. Every year more people test positive for HIV and AIDS, and in 2004 and 2005 it was reported that Washington County had the fastest growing rate of HIV cases in the state, she says. Since then "we've started to settle," Taylor-Gray says.

"Ten years later, I look back and I think, 'Are we even making headway?' In terms of stopping the disease, I don't think we are," she says.

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In Washington County alone, a minimum of 35 to 40 people a year are diagnosed with the chronic virus, which has no cure, Taylor-Gray says. That number does not include people in the state prison complex south of Hagerstown.

In 2004, the year for which the most recent data is available, there were more than 3,500 new cases of HIV or AIDS diagnosed in Maryland. With an AIDS case report rate of 26 cases per 100,000 people, Maryland has the third highest rate of new cases of any state, according to the Maryland AIDS Administration.

Those numbers reflect both the people who have been tested and know they are positive in addition to the estimated number of people who don't know they are positive. HIV/AIDS experts widely estimate that one-third of the people who are infected with HIV do not know they have the disease.

All of these statistics make health-care workers and HIV prevention advocates shake their heads in disbelief.

"We are an intelligent country. Why do we have over 40,000 new cases (nationally) every single year?" asks Judith Friend, executive director of the AIDS Network, serving Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia. "This does not make sense. It is a disease of behaviors."

"Where you have a disease that is tied up with sex, which is tied up with people's emotions, you have difficulty getting people to change," Taylor-Gray adds.

HIV and AIDS was first diagnosed 25 years ago this month. In 25 years the disease has spread worldwide and today infects an estimated 38.6 million people, according to information from the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. In 2005 alone, an estimated 4.1 million people worldwide became infected with HIV.

Yet somehow, the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic in the United States seems to have slipped off the national radar screen, say those who work in the health-care field.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the fight against AIDS was a national obsession. Red ribbons were a standard accessory on celebrity lapels, AIDS quilt exhibits drew thousands, and national television specials aimed to further educate the public about safe sex.

Today, Taylor-Gray can't find anyone interested in organizing a parade, let alone participating in it.

"In the very beginning, when celebrities and sports stars were admitting their HIV status, that was quite a shock, but now it's not being publicized to such a degree," says David Broddle, a volunteer with the Western Maryland HIV support organization, Positive Influence.

These days, people are more likely to hear about preventing bird flu, West Nile virus or an anthrax attack, than they are about the ongoing situation with AIDS in the United States, say those working in the AIDS field.

"I think we're in the post-hysteria phase. We're going to have to keep our awareness and our vigilance without using scare tactics," Broddle says. That's because there is a real danger in becoming complacent with the virus, he says.

"As the fear of HIV and AIDS decreases, so too do the precautions people take not to get it," he says. "We do not want the concern to go down to the point where people are not being careful."

There is some indication that infection rates are again on the rise in the U.S. The United Nations 2006 report on the global AIDS epidemic states, "evidence continues to emerge of resurgent epidemics in the United States of America."

The face of AIDS has changed and continues to change each year, professionals say. HIV infection rates are growing in populations of heterosexual women and in older Americans, Taylor-Gray says.

Also, better treatment options have changed the way people live with the virus.

People who are HIV positive have a chance of living a normal, full life, if they are diagnosed early, find an effective, continuous treatment option early, avoid risky behavior and avoid contracting other diseases and infections.

"That's why we stress testing," Friend says. "If people can get tested, we can start treating them right away and they can lead healthier, longer lives. And they won't spread it to someone else."

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