Local health officials worry about AIDS complacency

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Many sexually active Southeast Missouri residents have become complacent about AIDS and don't practice safe sex, Cape Girardeau County public health officials say.

"That is a battle we fight every day," said Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center.

A study of young gay and bisexual men in major U.S. cities found that more than 75 percent of those infected with HIV were unaware they had the AIDS virus.

"People think it's a gay man's disease, and it is not," said Carol Jordan, a registered nurse who heads up an AIDS clinic at the Cape Girardeau Public Health Center. She worries that the latest study will further stereotype the disease and its victims.

Still, she said the survey does point to a growing complacency among teen-agers and young adults when it comes to AIDS.

"These people have grown up with the virus," Jordan said. "This is nothing new to them. It has just always been there."

It's true young people have grown up hearing about AIDS, said Joshua Littrell, 20, a Southeast Missouri State University student and president of the gay-dominated Rainbow Coalition group there. However, he said gay and straight youths he knows are well aware of how to prevent transmission.

"I feel very comfortable in my knowledge about the disease," he said. "Most of the men in our group aren't preachy, but they know it is their responsibility to keep from getting the virus. I'm proud of how far we've come as a nation in educating people about HIV and AIDS. "

Jordan said she repeatedly advises sexually active people to use condoms in an effort to prevent them from contracting HIV. "I ask if they are using condoms and they say yes," she said. "A lot of times they just tell us what we want to hear."

As for international health officials, they're worried the AIDS epidemic could accelerate. They point to the latest survey reported at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

The survey of 5,719 men at dance clubs, bars, health clubs and street locations in six U.S. cities found that 77 percent of the 573 who tested positive for HIV hadn't known they were infected.

Jordan suggested the same findings probably could be found among heterosexual men and women who test positive.

From 1986 through 2000, 383 people in 20 Southeast Missouri counties tested positive for the AIDS virus. Of those, 143 have died, the Missouri Department of Health reported.

The agency lists cumulative figures for AIDS and HIV cases by county, but those statistics can be misleading. The numbers list cases on the basis of where the testing was done as opposed to where patients live.

The Missouri Department of Health reported no new AIDS cases in Cape Girardeau, Scott, Bollinger and Perry counties last year.

About 70 people a month visit the health department to be tested for HIV. "Less than 1 percent are testing positive for HIV," Jordan said.

The clinic sees 75 to 80 patients a month from throughout Southeast Missouri.

It's the only AIDS clinic between St. Louis and Memphis that has a doctor specializing in infectious disease, local health officials said. Patients include both men and women.

Managing editor Heidi Hall contributed to this report.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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