HERO no more

Our view: Baltimore's Health Education Resource Organization was a giant in the AIDS fight

November 25, 2008

For years, Baltimore's Health Education Resource Organization, known as HERO, was one of the most active, best-funded clinical support groups for people with HIV/AIDS in the country. It provided counseling, medical care, a place to gather and a sympathetic ear to patients who often had nowhere else to turn at a time when AIDS was poorly understood and its victims often stigmatized as unworthy of help.

That's why past and present HERO clients are shocked and saddened by news that the group is preparing to end its 25-year mission of mercy in a city with at least 16,000 cases. A recent drop in contributions, allegations of mismanagement and a review by health department auditors that found the organization so shaky that its federal grant money should be revoked all combined to force its closure tomorrow. City Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said the organization's current clients will be transferred to other programs.

HERO's collapse is a sad coda to the contributions of a once-revered local icon. In 1982, when news reports first began surfacing of a fatal affliction affecting gay men in San Francisco and New York, AIDS was a mystery. An editorial in this newspaper then called it the "homosexual disease" and noted that "public health officials know so little about [it] ... that they hesitate to say anything definite."

For years afterward, what would become an international pandemic was cloaked in uncertainty and fear. Government officials were reluctant to acknowledge a problem even existed, and when politicians were asked about it they often tried to change the subject by denouncing homosexuality, as if just the fact of being gay forfeited one's moral claim to medical attention.

Then in 1983, Dr. Bernard Branson, a former Johns Hopkins professor now with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began inviting small groups of AIDS patients to meet at his office to share experiences and offer mutual support. HERO grew out of those meetings and went on to become a model for other AIDS support groups in the U.S. and around the world. At its height, it boasted a budget of $4 million a year and attracted 10,000 participants to the AIDS Walks that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledges.

Aside from its medical, legal and counseling services, HERO gave a lesson in compassion to a city that would become a center of the epidemic; greater Baltimore has a higher rate of new cases than any city except Miami. And as soon as effective treatments became available, HERO began saving lives. It is likely the epidemic here would have been far worse if not for HERO's courageous, pioneering work. For that, Baltimore always will owe it a debt of gratitude.

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