The AIDS crisis is here

June 29, 1993

When AIDS began to creep into the national consciousness a decade ago, some people predicted the disease could trigger a health care crisis. Now, as the disease spreads further into the population, it is clear the crisis is here. At Johns Hopkins Hospital's Moore Clinic, the waiting time for an initial medical assessment for people already HIV-infected is measured in months, not weeks. Around the city, hospitals and clinics that treat AIDS are straining to cope with rapidly rising numbers of patients. Johns Hopkins Hospital alone is following about 3,000 AIDS patients, adding 30 to 40 each month.

In one respect, Baltimore is a model for AIDS awareness and support. Volunteer networks are doing a heroic job of meeting the daily needs of many of the people suffering with AIDS. These resources are an indication that despite all its problems this city still retains a strong sense of community, exhibited in the ability of its people to reach out to one another.

The response from state and local governments has been less reassuring. Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed an AIDS advisory commission and asked for reports on education, prevention and medical care. But the governor didn't respond to its recommendations and dismissed the group last year. Mayor Schmoke's advisory panel has such a low profile few people are aware of its existence.

Meanwhile, physicians are seeing patterns of transmission similar to those in Africa in the mid-1980s, as the disease began to mushroom. AIDS came to public attention in this country as a disease afflicting gay men, but anyone who still thinks of it that way is dangerously misinformed. In Baltimore today, 42 percent of all AIDS cases were contracted by means of intravenous drug use, mostly by heterosexuals. Current estimates are that 25 percent of the city's 40,000 intravenous drug users are HIV-infected and that the infection spreads to four or five more users each day. These people have sexual partners, who are also at risk of infection. Infected women often pass the virus to their babies. In Maryland, as elsewhere around the country, AIDS is no longer a "gay disease."

Although the overwhelming majority of AIDS cases are found in the city, concern about infection is growing in the suburbs. Officials at one city AIDS hotline say more than half of their requests for information come from surrounding counties.

Governor Schaefer is primed to appoint a new AIDS commission, charged with a narrower focus on education and prevention. The group will function as part of a broadened Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, headed by Dr. Neil Solomon. Clearly, the commission has important work to do.

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