Health officials strive to increase awareness regarding AIDS crisis

City promotes outreach plans on World AIDS Day

December 02, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A year after Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency in the battle against AIDS, health officials say they're worried that a drop in AIDS cases could lead to public complacency.

"While AIDS is becoming more and more a chronic disease and less of a fatal disease, we want to avoid media fatigue from setting in and an attitude where people feel they can ignore what's still a very serious threat," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner.

The number of city residents dying of AIDS has dropped steadily over the past decade, from 959 in 1993 to 93 last year, he said. Newly diagnosed AIDS cases dropped statewide from 2,354 in 1993 to 1,313 last year, state figures show.

Nonetheless, O'Malley declared a state of emergency last year after complaints from the City Council and AIDS activists that his administration was not addressing an AIDS crisis in several city neighborhoods.

Health officials credit awareness campaigns and new therapies with prolonging the lives of those infected with HIV. "We're making a lot of progress," said Dr. Liza Solomon, head of the Maryland AIDS Administration.

City health officials observed World AIDS Day yesterday by promoting initiatives such as the launch of a campaign to encourage AIDS testing and a pledge to put a new van in city neighborhoods that will offer AIDS tests and counseling beginning early next year.

Health officials also visited four campuses last night -- Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities, Coppin State College and Baltimore City Community College -- to show a 28-minute movie profiling the lives of four HIV-infected Baltimoreans.

Health experts said yesterday that their efforts are aimed at combating perceptions that the AIDS epidemic has ceased to be a major problem. "Part of the goal is to make this a politically more important issue," said Dr. William Blattner, chief of AIDS epidemiology at the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology and chairman of a commission O'Malley formed to push for prevention and treatment programs.

Blattner said he plans to hold meetings in each council district to gather input and increase AIDS awareness in neighborhoods. But some AIDS activists are unsure if the city's efforts are addressing the problem.

"How many meetings do we need to have before we realize that we have a problem, a major problem?" asked Benita Paschall, director of the Baltimore Prevention Coalition, a community-based AIDS awareness program.

Paschall said that many people who visit city clinics and mobile vans for tests never return to learn the results because of the stigma associated with AIDS. The disease afflicts a significant number of gay men and intravenous drug users.

"We're still hung up on labeling and categorizing people without helping them deal with the behaviors that should be the main concern," she said.

AIDS and HIV infections remain the number one cause of death among 25 to 44-year-olds in Baltimore, city health officials said.

Baltimore has the third-highest rate of infection among cities nationwide, with 50 cases per 100,000 people. Maryland's 34 cases per 100,000 placed it third behind Washington, D.C., and New York, according to state and federal statistics. The national average is 14.8 cases per 100,000.

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