Campaign focuses on AIDS test, prevention

Infection rate rises, awareness drops

new radio ads soon

Carroll County

March 20, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Faced with a doubling of county AIDS cases in the past three years, Carroll health officials have launched a campaign to encourage testing and early treatment, to educate young people and to make the population more aware of the potentially fatal illness.

"We have to get the prevention message out, not only to youth but to their parents," said Bernice Culver, a registered nurse and acquired immune deficiency syndrome case manager for Carroll County Health Department.

"Death rates are down, but infection rates are up. People have become relaxed in their attitudes to this disease. They think it is not a problem anymore, but it is still growing at an alarming rate."

In the past three years, Culver has seen her AIDS caseload jump to 40 patients throughout the county. At times, she has had as many as 50 cases.

"And we have no idea how many go out of the county for services," Culver said.

The Health Department has purchased billboard and radio advertising and is circulating nearly 1,000 fliers. The message is the same for anyone who has been involved in high-risk behavior: get tested for HIV.

The department offers free, confidential testing at its offices in Westminster for the virus, which causes AIDS. Officials conduct about 150 tests a month.

A billboard ad on Route 32 in Eldersburg will be rotated throughout the county.

The fliers are at doctors' offices, community centers and spots popular with teen-agers. A local radio station soon will broadcast the information three times weekly for the next three months.

The county is using money from a federal grant that targets high-risk women and youths - two groups that have alarming increases in AIDS - to fund the campaign.

Half of the 40,000 new human immunodeficiency virus infections diagnosed every year in the United States are in people ages 13 through 19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Carroll has all the risk factors for HIV in place," Culver said. "There is the increase in drug use that increases risk for infection, and younger and younger teens are becoming sexually active. Education is at the heart of reversing these trends."

HIV, which causes AIDS, can be transmitted by having sex with an infected person; by sharing a drug needle with an infected person; or from mother to child, at birth or through breast-feeding.

The risk of getting AIDS from tainted blood through a transfusion, once considered a chief cause, is much lower because of careful screening of the U.S. blood supply, according to AIDS Action, a national awareness group.

Half of all HIV infections are attributed to drug abuse, according to AIDS Action.

At least 14 Carroll residents have died of heroin overdoses since January 2000.

The latest Maryland Adolescent Survey, released last year, reported that use of other narcotics among Carroll's recent high school graduates had doubled to 7.3 percent of students. The survey also found a growing popularity of Ecstasy, LSD, prescription narcotics and binge drinking - all of which impair judgment.

In Carroll, 58.4 percent of 12th-graders said they had engaged in binge drinking at least once. The statewide number was 52.3 percent. Promiscuity also contributes to the rise in sexually transmitted diseases.

"By the time youth reach 12th grade, about 25 percent of those sexually active report they have had four or five sexual partners," Culver said. "Unsafe sex is another part of the problem."

Lynda Niles, a county health educator, is taking the message of prevention into schools using the state-approved curriculum on sexually transmitted diseases. The program stresses abstinence as the only 100-percent-effective means of protection. Niles candidly discusses the dangers of risky behavior.

Initially, students are reluctant to participate in sensitive discussions, but Niles' frank, patient manner usually puts them at ease and wins them over.

"HIV does not discriminate," she told pupils at a recent middle school visit. "It likes everybody. It is not who we are, but what we are doing that gives it a chance."

When one middle-schooler said that Magic Johnson has survived with AIDS for years, she had a ready explanation.

"He found out early, and he has been on medication for a long time," she said. "That is why we tell you to come in and be tested."

Niles would prefer giving her message of prevention to treating a young person for HIV.

"We want students to learn to make good choices and to stay healthy," she said. "I had one student come in and get tested. He said it scared him enough to be more careful."

The test process takes about 30 minutes and includes counseling, paperwork and a consent form. The department averages about 150 tests a month.

In a follow-up session, the counselor will discuss test results and risk factors.

"It gives us another opportunity to educate and reduce the risks," Culver said.

A teen-ager can be tested anonymously, without parental permission, and would be the only one to receive the results. If the test is positive for HIV, Culver would offer counseling and medical referrals.

"Our goal is to get people in to be tested and then get them into treatment," Niles said. "We want to prolong life and give better quality."

Information about AIDS testing is available from Carroll County Health Department, 410-876-4752. Appointments are required.

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