Linda R. Stromberg gave her "AIDS 101" course Monday at St. Joseph Catholic Community in Sykesville.
Ms. Stromberg, Carroll County's only caseworker for AIDS patients, repeats the lecture whenever she is asked because she believes "the more we talk about AIDS, the more we prevent it."
About 60 people listened intently as Ms. Stromberg described the course of the disease from initial infection to the complete breakdown of the body's immune system.
"It's a controversial topic that many prefer to ignore," said Nancy Birck, chairman of the church's newly formed AIDS ministry. "This is a critical issue, and we must all learn about it."
Janet VanCleve, a member of the parish health ministry, said the group wanted to learn how to deal with the disease.
"The AIDS ministry is new to the parish, and we are not very knowledgeable," she said.
Ms. Stromberg conducts free, confidential blood tests to determine if a person is HIV-positive -- carrying the human immunodeficiency virus that leads to AIDS. Her caseload now includes about 28 people, but "that doesn't begin to tell the story."
"For every AIDS patient, there are at least nine others who are HIV-positive and don't know it," she said. "And there are many families here carrying the burden of care for an AIDS patient alone."
The Carroll community is like all others, she said. The case number changes constantly, with new referrals nearly every week.
"The hardest thing I ever do is tell somebody their test is positive," she said. "I had to tell a 28-year-old man that last week."
She said her newest patient had never done drugs, was not homosexual and had had only three sexual partners in his life.
"This virus does not discriminate as to race or sex," she said. "It has nothing to do with what group you might fit into. It has to do with behavior. It just wants an opportunity to get into your system."
The Rev. Terry Weik, the youth minister at St. Joseph, brought some 20 high school students to the workshop "to increase their awareness." He and the students had discussed the issue in a previous class.
"I was surprised they were able to come up with the transmission routes," he said. "The high school may be doing its job."
Father Weik called education the best way to prevent the disease. "In this case, ignorance can kill," he said.
For those who suspect they have been involved in at-risk behavior, Ms. Stromberg stressed the need for blood tests. The test detects the presence of an antibody that fights off infection. Early detection leads to early medical intervention and treatment, which can prolong a patient's life. She said 99.5 percent of those infected today "would have enough antibody to trigger a positive test within 12 weeks. The rest would test positive within six months."
Without an HIV test, a person could carry the virus for up to 12 years without symptoms without knowing it, and could look and feel well, before developing serious symptoms. "This sets up the possibility of infecting others," Ms. Stromberg said. "This is why the disease is spreading so rapidly. You cannot tell by the way someone looks."
She said she is especially concerned about teen-agers, because the largest death rate is among 30-year-olds who were probably infected while in their late teens. With no cure in sight, prevention is the key to controlling the disease.
"No teen-ager is ready for sexual activity, but sex education offers them the information to make the best decisions," she said.
Ms. Stromberg urged teens to be cautious. She said that national statistics and her experience have led her to conclude that there are infected students attending high school in this county. She urged educators to stress prevention.
"Condoms are not a suit of armor, but you are 90 percent safer with them, than without," she told the gathering Monday. Within the next 10 years, she said, "everyone in this room will know somebody who has died from AIDS," and that tragedy is preventable.
Ms. Stromberg will give her lecture again Dec. 5 at the Carroll County AIDS Awareness Day at Carroll Community College.