Health officials discuss ways to reach ethnic, immigrant and youth groups at Montgomery College event
County, state and national health officials in a forum Monday discussed methods to increase AIDS and HIV prevention and education among minority and ethnic groups who may be misinformed about the virus.
"A big problem in minority communities is the issue of shame, being excluded, denial," said the Rev. Ken Jackson, president of the Black Minister's Conference of Montgomery County at the forum held on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus of Montgomery College in observance of World AIDS Day.
Discussions focused primarily on how to get the word out to minorities, immigrants and youth groups, demographics prevalent in Montgomery County.
There were 227 new HIV infections reported in Montgomery County in 2006, according to the most recent data from the Maryland AIDS Administration, placing the county third in Maryland behind Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
AIDS is a set of symptoms and infections resulting from the damage to the human immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. HIV is transmitted through direct contact of a mucous membrane or the bloodstream with a bodily fluid containing HIV.
Among the county's immigrant population, AIDS awareness is stifled by a fear that being tested or treated for HIV through government agencies could lead to deportation, said Barbara Golding of the Dennis Avenue Health Center in Silver Spring.
The center, run by the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, provides testing and treatment for those already infected with HIV or AIDS and offers help in finding health care and financial support for those infected. But Golding said many people don't seek out the center's services until it's too late.
"People are coming to us later in the infection and … they are already dying," she said.
As of 2006, Latinos accounted for 18 percent of new HIV cases worldwide and 10 percent in the county, said Eyal Bergman, HIV program manager with Identity, a Gaithersburg-based nonprofit that serves Latinos in the county.
In addition to fears of deportation, Bergman said there is a strong stigma among the Latino community of those with AIDS, with HIV-infected women being deemed promiscuous and men seen as homosexuals.
"The prevention message does not get across to the entire Latino population," Bergman said.
To raise HIV and AIDS awareness, Identity conducts testing at sites in Gaithersburg, Takoma Park and Wheaton, as well as the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Identity also trains "youth educators" to carry around backpacks and hand out condoms and AIDS prevention pamphlets to teens.
Similar problems face Asian Americans, a group often overlooked when it comes to HIV and AIDS, said Nouf Bazaz, a program coordinator with the county's Asian American Health Initiative based in Rockville. She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep extensive data among Asian Americans regarding the virus.
"There is no evidence indicating a lower risk among Asian Americans," Bazaz said, later adding that Asian Americans are "less aware of HIV than most other ethnic groups."
Overall, the lack of awareness is generational, with today's youth thinking the disease is not as serious or prevalent as it was for past generations, said Abimbola Idowu of the African American Health Program based in Silver Spring.
"Awareness has died off because people think there is great care," said Idowu, whose organization sponsored the forum. "They think it is something they can deal with."
Golding said she has seen a disturbing trend recently of youth attending parties to deliberately infect themselves with the disease with no clear motive.
To gain a better presence among teens, the African American Health Program worked with a group of students at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring to develop an AIDS prevention brochure to be distributed to their peers in school.
A potential preventative measure for AIDS and HIV most officials did not mention was ongoing research on an HIV vaccine. While an HIV vaccine is "at least a decade away," Diane Johnson of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda said thousands of clinical trials are being done to develop the vaccine.
Johnson was adamant that the volunteers participating in the clinical trials have no risk of being infected with HIV. NIH has only conducted the first of three planned phases for the vaccine trials, where 50 to 60 healthy volunteers engage in a one- to two-year process.
"We believe the development of a vaccine will be the best bet to eradicate the disease," Johnson said.
To volunteer for the National Institute of Health's HIV vaccine trials, call 866-833-LIFE or send an e-mail to vrc@NIH.gov.
For the Montgomery County-run Dennis Avenue Health Center's sexually-transmitted disease clinic, call 240-777-1760. If you have already tested positive for HIV, call the center's client services office at 240-777-1869 for a case worker.
To reach the Montgomery County Branch of the Coalition of People with AIDS, call 240-247-1015 or for the national organization, call 1-866-846-9366.
For information on Identity's HIV counseling and testing program, call Eyal Bergman at 301-422-1272. Identity has offices at 414 East Diamond Ave. in Gaithersburg, 11141 Georgia Ave. in Wheaton and 7676 New Hampshire Ave. in Takoma Park.