AIDS cases in city, Md. decline Bucking national trend, area shows decrease in black community

July 02, 1998|By ALEC KLEIN | ALEC KLEIN,SUN STAFF

Even as AIDS assaults black communities nationwide, hope is emerging that the deadly disease is retreating in Baltimore and Maryland as a result of the missionary deeds of nonprofit agencies, medical institutions and, now, the church.

In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, 872 new AIDS cases among African-Americans were reported in Baltimore the third straight year showing a decline. The state has experienced a similar trend.

Despite recent criticism of national efforts by public health officials, ministers and civil rights leaders say their efforts locally to address AIDS in workshops, seminars and from the pulpit are succeeding.

"The spiritual community has always addressed the needs and issues in the African-American community," said Minister Douglas Wilson of the Mount Pleasant Church Ministries in Northeast Baltimore who is developing a teen pregnancy outreach center that would address AIDS prevention. "We've always been the ones who've performed the marriages, the funerals. We have the soup kitchens, we have the clothing drives. The issue of AIDS is not one that has been excluded."

Needle exchange

Baltimore's health department is doing its part as well, sending out workers to crack houses to hand out condoms. The city runs the largest local-government needle-exchange program in the nation, part of an attempt to prevent drug users from using contaminated needles, the cause of most of Baltimore's AIDS cases.

"It's a large problem; however, it is not insurmountable," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

The state's AIDS Administration is attacking the problem with a $28 million annual budget that funds such efforts as a black church-based HIV/AIDS Prevention Education program. It is designed to recruit ministers and others, train them in AIDS prevention and send them out to talk with their neighbors and families.

Despite such local efforts, several public health leaders nationally -- including U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher -- said they did not believe African American institutions, including the church, had done enough.

Top cause of death

Critics such as Satcher point out that AIDS remains the leading cause of death among African-Americans nationwide between ages 25 and 44. In Maryland, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the leading cause of death among blacks in the same age range. State health officials did not have similar statistics for Baltimore.

"Clearly there needs to be greater involvement in the community, a greater community response," said Dr. Helene D. Gayle, director of the national center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gayle also said there has been a dearth of education and treatment. "There needs to be greater resources and better access to care," she said in an interview from Geneva, where thousands of AIDS experts are meeting for the 12th World AIDS Conference.

Locally, black institutions are not immune from the same criticism.

"You can count on one hand the number of preachers who regularly mention HIV and AIDS from the pulpit," said Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., pastor of Unity United Methodist Church and councilman from the 6th District who has preached about the disease since the early 1990s. "It is still anathema. It is still language they're not mentioning because of the stigma associated with it."

The silence of the church has left a 34-year-old AIDS patient in Baltimore and father of two feeling betrayed. "Some of the churches I know, they're not open to the community as far as this epidemic," he said. "They're not sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of African-Americans in Baltimore touched by this disease. Christianity should be a part of this as well."

'We're doing what we can'

Several ministers, however, maintain they are involved. "We're talking about it, we're preaching about it," said Pastor Melvin B. Tuggle II, president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore. "We're doing what we can."

So, too, are historically important institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has declared AIDS a public health crisis. "They are raising the issue, they are trying to make people aware it is a serious problem, and we are trying to knock down the myths," said Dr. Rodney A. Orange, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

The growing chorus of concern is being welcomed by those who have been on the front lines fighting the disease.

"It's heartening to see local churches are contacting us about health fairs, about outreach efforts," said Martin Conover, LTC director of development at Chase Brexton Health Services Inc., a nonprofit community health center for AIDS patients and others in Mount Vernon. "And I think a lot of churches and civic organizations are getting involved that were previously not getting involved."

But for all the progress, the universal sentiment is that more needs to be done.

Reflecting a disturbing national trend, racial disparities are still pronounced in AIDS cases in Baltimore and across the state.

Statistics

Since health care workers began tracking the disease in 1981, 8,918 AIDS cases have been reported in the city, state health officials said. Roughly 86 percent of the cases were among blacks in a city that is about 65 percent black.

The numbers may be even more telling statewide, where 27 percent of the population is black. Of 17,073 cases of AIDS reported in Maryland since 1981, 74.5 percent involved African-Americans.

"Not enough is being done in all populations," said Dr. Lori Fantry, medical director of the Evelyn Jordan Center, an AIDS clinic at the University of Maryland Medical Center on South Eutaw Street. "It's society in general."

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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