Bad News On World Aids Day 11/27/2002
HIV rates are increasing-and testing for it is easier than ever.
Thursday, November 28, 2002
Photo: Out of The Margins: From left to right, Kim Batiste, Craig Wenzl, Wayne Johnson and Alicia Kosman of the Monterey County AIDS Project serve an increasingly mainstream population of HIV sufferers."One-third of people in this county who are infected with HIV don''t know it," says Wayne Johnson, executive director of the Monterey County AIDS Project (MCAP). Johnson''s in his office with MCAP co-workers Craig Wenzl, director of education and prevention, and Alicia Kosman, client services director, discussing how to find and treat the people who don''t know they are infected-or who do know but are in denial.
"We have about 300 people getting treatment right now, out of an estimated 950 to 1,050 people in the county with the disease," Johnson explains.
In spite of the daunting reality, a strong sense of hopefulness circulates among the workers and volunteers in the cozy Seaside house that serves as MCAP headquarters. The very real face of AIDS is present here, too. On the walls of Johnson''s office are large black-and-white photographs of friends and MCAP volunteers who have died from the disease. In the living room are more photographs of HIV-positive people who are living with it.
With the cocktail of AIDS drugs now available, people are able to live longer. But now they find problems with insurance carriers and sky-high prescription costs that can run up to $4,000 a month. MCAP points clients in the direction of subsidized prescriptions through federal funding.
"The cost of medication should scare no one away from treatment," Kosman says. "The big message is to get medical assistance. Blood tests can pinpoint which medications work with your genetics."
MCAP also provides emotional support through therapeutic groups for clients who are dealing with the shame of HIV and trying to hide their condition.
"A lot of my clients are very careful not to let people know they have AIDS," Kosman says. "They''re afraid of losing their housing, jobs, friends, and being alienated by their family members. It takes you to another level of stress to live with HIV and have to hide it."
Because so many people don''t know they are HIV-positive or don''t talk about having AIDS, and because it''s still widely perceived as a gay or drug-user''s disease, many people underestimate the risk to themselves-at great peril. Johnson looks me in the eye.
"Everyone has a different concept of how at-risk for the disease they are," he says. "They are usually wrong. White straight women who are married and live in Carmel Valley with 2.2 kids think they aren''t at risk. I have some very sad examples of this."
With that reminder, I''m ready to take advantage of the free AIDS testing offered five days a week by MCAP. Clients can choose to be identified by number only, or they can give their name and address in complete confidentiality.
I head down to the basement to wait for Catrina Flores, Women''s Program Coordinator, to give me the test. Flores is busy juggling phone calls and projects. While waiting for her, I nosily poke through a pile of Ziploc bags sitting on an office chair.
As a cascade of Durex condoms and Astroglide lubricants showers off the chair, Flores raises an eyebrow, but generously gives me a sample packet containing prophylactics and information aimed at youth.
"We have different packets targeted for different groups," she explains. Indeed, all the materials in the office are highly targeted, from hip magazines for people living with Hepatitis C and AIDS to publications aimed at gay men of color or pregnant women with HIV.
Flores spends about 25 minutes with me going over a form asking about my sexual and drug history and answering any questions. She explains the "window period," the three-to six-month time frame after exposure when the test might not pick up HIV antibodies.
Then she hands me a cotton swab to stick in my cheek for a few minutes. That''s it. The test, which is 99 percent accurate, gives results in two weeks.
Flores loads me up with information and safe sex tools, some of which I''ve never seen before. I tell her it''s hard to believe people really will use latex gloves on their hands and dental dams over their various body parts on top of the already-underused condoms. Flores shrugs at my skepticism.
"All I can do is give you knowledge, equipment and support, but what you do is up to you," she says. "You need to figure out how much risk you are willing to take and if you are willing to deal with the consequences."
And as I walk out the door clutching a banana-flavored dental dam, I realize that MCAP is all about acceptance and empowerment. It''s an example of complete honesty-and lack of judgment-in a society where people who are sick have to hide their disease out of shame.
Join MCAP at the Feast for AIDS honoring World AIDS Day and raising money for MCAP support programs on Sunday, December 1, 2002, at 6pm. Monterey Plaza Hotel. Call for reservations 394-4747.