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AIDS toll on Georgia blacks severe

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AIDS continues to infect and kill black Georgians at an alarming rate, a new state report shows. And it's cutting them down in the prime of their lives.

The virus is the leading cause of death of African-American men ages 35-44 and of black women ages 25-34. In comparison, white men and white women in those same age groups die most often from unintentional injuries, according to the state health disparity report on HIV/AIDS.

Today, World AIDS Day, prompted state health officials and academic researchers to call for more aggressive intervention and education about the disease among minority populations. Georgia's Office of Minority Health, Morehouse School of Medicine and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation all released AIDS-related reports Tuesday keying in on racial and ethnic differences.

Although blacks comprise 29 percent of Georgia's population, they represent 64 percent of the state's cumulative AIDS cases. Whites represent 34 percent of AIDS cases and Hispanics 2 percent.

More than twice as many blacks than whites have contracted the disease since 1981. As of June, African-Americans had 18,446 cases; whites recorded 9,266 cases and Hispanics, 701 cases, Georgia AIDS Coalition figures show.

While new drugs are helping people with AIDS live longer and healthier, blacks are more likely to get tested in the late stages of the disease when treatment is less effective, health educators say. Learning to avoid being exposed to the virus and getting tested for it routinely remain the best defenses against AIDS, they say. About 25 percent of Georgians infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, don't know they have the disease. 

"It's very frightening," said James Couch of the Georgia Department of Community Health, "the number of people who are HIV-positive but don't know it." Men who have sex with men account for nearly half of all AIDS cases in the state.

But heterosexual women are becoming more and more vulnerable, particularly black women, experts said. AIDS cases among women in Georgia have doubled in one decade --- to representing about 26 percent of all cases.

Since the epidemic began in 1982, about 14,000 of 29,896 people with AIDS in Georgia have died.

Dr. David Satcher, director of the National Center for Primary Care at the Morehouse School of Medicine, called for more aggressive education on sexually transmitted diseases in schools from grade school to graduate school. Poverty also plays a role in who dies and who lives when it comes to AIDS, he said. About two-thirds of Georgians with AIDS live in metro Atlanta and thousands of them are estimated to be homeless. Only about half of Georgia's HIV patients have access to the best AIDS medicine and doctors, said Satcher.

Denise Stokes, 35, of Stockbridge, who's lived with the AIDS virus for 22 years, said she can no longer politely call for more funding, resources and programs.

"We have failed miserably at being human beings," Stokes said.

Stokes said the rising rate of AIDS among blacks can't be blamed exclusively on a lifestyle dubbed 'down low' --- where men with wives or girlfriends have sex with men on the sly.

Instead, she listed old culprits: ignorance, prejudice, fear, denial. "We draw lines and take sides and stand by and watch people die, saying, 'That doesn't concern me.' We have not honored that bond that makes us human."

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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