Aids In Moco
AIDS deaths have declined but there's no reason to believe HIV infection rates are decreasing.
Thursday, March 18, 1999
Sherri Smith [a false name], a King City High School senior, says sheknows of one boy at her school who is infected with HIV but still tries to get girls to sleep with him.
"I think it''s a grudge thing he has," says Smith. "He tells girls after he''s had sex with them that he''s HIV positive. He feels that if I have to live with it, so should they," Smith conjectures.
Christian Angel, the Latino outreach coordinator for the Monterey County AIDS Project (MCAP), says that he''s had sexual partners tell him, "If you really love me, you''re not going to use a condom."
Smith''s and Angel''s stories are similar to stories that are heard more and more frequently across the country. Many young people, both gay and straight, have developed something of an indifference to--and in some cases even a defiant attitude toward--the disease.
Today''s "generation has no concept of what it''s like to go through a day and for this to not be an issue," says Michael Capristo, a volunteer for MCAP who frequently talks with young people. "They haven''t had numerous friends die of the disease as gays did in the 1980s, and they''ve become somewhat numbed to the dangers of HIV. It''s kind of like Monica Lewinsky," Capristo says, "Nobody wants to hear that shit anymore."
While combination drug therapies have succeeded in dramatically reducing AIDS deaths in recent years, most estimates show that nationwide HIV infection rates are holding steady--about 40,000 per year according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And while there are no good overall infection rate estimates for Monterey County--all HIV screening in California is done on a confidential, non-reportable basis--there is no reason to believe that Monterey County''s infection rate is decreasing either.
There is, however, plenty of evidence to show that the populations most at risk are shifting. Following the national trend, AIDS in Monterey County is increasingly not a gay white male disease.
Take the county data on AIDS cases. Most striking is the fact that the white population, which made up over 70 percent of AIDS cases during the 1980s, made up only about 43 percent since 1993. Latinos, who accounted for just 16 percent of AIDS cases in the 1980s, accounted for 28 percent since 1993. The percentages for blacks rose similarly from 10 percent to 22 percent.
The data also show that women are increasingly affected by AIDS. During the 1980s, women made up only about eight percent of AIDS cases. In the ''90s, they have increased to more than 11 percent, and the cause of their infections has shifted. In the ''80s, more than 60 percent of women with AIDS got the disease through intravenous drug use. Since 1993, over 60 percent got it through heterosexual encounters.
County epidemiologist Karen Ehnert cautions that AIDS cases generally trail the actual time of HIV infection by about 10 years. It takes that long for the virus to incubate and develop into the life threatening disease, so current AIDS statistics should not be used to estimate current infections. Yet anecdotal accounts of county health workers seem to indicate that infections today are roughly following the trends in AIDS cases.
Kim Smith, who has coordinated the county''s HIV testing program for five years, says that overall, she''s not seeing an increase in the number of people who test positive. Within the Latino community, however, she says she has seen an increase.
David Magana, MCAP director for client services, says that MCAP receives an average of five to six new clients per month. Over half of these are not gay, and at least 30 percent are female. Women, especially minority women, "are the last ones to get the information" on sexually transmitted diseases says Magana. "They naturally trust their partners," he says, and many "are not empowered to protect themselves."
Magana notes that within the last year, MCAP has started outreach programs for African-Americans, Latino farmworkers, women and the young gay population. MCAP is "making extra efforts" for these populations, says Magana, because MCAP sees these populations as among those most at risk.
MCAP already runs outreach programs for gay men and intravenous drug users. While homosexual male sex still is the largest cause of AIDS in the county, intravenous drug use is the second largest, and it could become the first in the next decade. MCAP Outreach Director David True says that when he tests people for HIV, for every 10 tests that come back positive, eight of them are "because of a syringe."
Although the county statistics reflect only a minor increase in adolescent and young adult AIDS cases in recent years, virtually everyone Coast Weekly spoke to in researching this article expressed concern about the adolescent and young adult populations.
Because youths inherently feel invincible, because the new drug treatments are perceived by some to offer a "cure" to AIDS, and because many in the straight population still see HIV as a gay white man''s disease, many youths just don''t see HIV as something they need to worry about.
Smith believes that her classmates are at least somewhat aware of AIDS and HIV, and they know they should use condoms. But, she says, "I think everybody I know is sexually active; they sleep with anyone." She adds that "AIDS is no big thing to them; they don''t realize there''s no cure."
Given that "nobody''s really showing [kids] how to prevent" HIV infections, Smith is not surprised that young people are becoming infected. "A teenager is going to do what they want," she says. Instead of trying to stop them from having sex, she says there should be more efforts to teach them how "to do it right."
There is also increasing concern about the gay population in Monterey County since the demise of the After Dark--the area''s primary gay meeting place. Capristo, who is gay, says that he sees more and more people going to the San Jose, San Francisco or Berkeley "bath houses," to meet people, and this, he believes, can encourage unsafe behaviors. It''s a lot easier to be anonymous and tempted to do unwise things when you''re in a large metropolitan community to which you don''t even belong.
Capristo is also worried about gays who feel "orphaned" with the collapse of the community. When people feel isolated or hopeless, they are more likely to become indifferent to life threatening risks such as HIV infections.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the numbers of people living with HIV and AIDS are increasing. The new drug therapies are, in many cases, staving off AIDS deaths, but infection rates remain constant. It doesn''t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the chances for becoming infected with HIV grow with the size of the affected population.
In Smith''s opinion, her community doesn''t take AIDS seriously enough. "Nobody really thinks [HIV] can be here in King City," she says.
Think again. cw