10/21/05 — HIV numbers increasing in Wayne County

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HIV numbers increasing in Wayne County

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 21, 2005 1:52 PM

HIV is spreading in Wayne County. If you doubt it, just ask those living with it on a daily basis.

Jeri Barnes has written poems about the disease and its effects over the last decade. The diminutive black woman speaks softly but carries a loud message.

"It's continuing to invade especially the minority population, women, and even young people, teenagers," she said at a community awareness forum held at Wayne County Public Library last week. The meeting was sponsored by WayneAIDS Inc., the Wayne County HIV/AIDS Task Force and Community Care Center as a way to increase awareness about the disease.

"Even though they don't come forth to be tested because they show no symptoms, we feel it's important to step up and speak out about this problem," said Ms. Barnes.

WayneAIDS began as a grassroots effort to reach out and illuminate the subject that has long polarized communities.

"People know and sometimes they just sit quietly,"said Ms. Barnes. "Our vision is outreach. We'll focus on awareness, prevention, and advocacy, working directly with people living with AIDS."

More than 800,000 people in the U.S. are thought to be infected with HIV, and 40,000 new infections occur each year. AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syn-drome, is the final stage of HIV. AIDS is a leading cause of death in the U.S. among people between the ages of 25 and 44.

"It's a disease that we'll have to address for years to come. It's here. It's affecting everybody," said James Roosen, the director of the county Health Department.

Roosen said 90 percent of the cases diagnosed in Wayne involve black men.

Shirley Edwards introduced panelists at the forum. She said there is a need to talk about the disease.

"Unless we add it at the grassroots level, it will leave a pathway of death," she said. "It is no respecter of persons, places or family."

Mary Jordan of Goldsboro has lived with the disease for nearly a decade. She described some of the reactions she has received since being diagnosed.

"How people treat you today with this disease almost makes me angry because it's not fair for people to stand back in the bushes and hide because of ignorance or neighbors and their neighborhoods," she said.

"I've been called names, I have almost been run away from my home," she said. "But after nine years of this, I say, I'm still here.

She said she knows a woman who has been living on the streets since her family discovered she had HIV.

"The people in the streets try to get the point across to neighbors -- save a life, be a friend," she said. "We need help from our neighbors and our friends and families."

Dr. James Atkins said he has tried to dispel some of the myths that surround AIDS and HIV.

"In the olden days, it was thought of as a disease of homosexuals," said Atkins. "It's naive to think that a disease could be selective and know it was a homosexual."

The first case he encountered in Wayne County, he said, was a woman in Mount Olive who got it from her husband and later died.

Atkins called HIV an equal opportunity venereal disease, typically acquired through sexual contact. Drugs are also a means to contract it but most people don't use drugs, he said.

"It's a virus that keeps on giving," Atkins said. But it is also treatable, he said, emphasizing the importance of taking medications as prescribed.

"How do you keep from getting AIDS?" Atkins asked. "Keep your arm sleeves down and your pants up." No family is immune, he said.

"I know attorneys who have had children with HIV, school principals who have died from it," he said. "The thing that we have got to get away from is ignorance. There's too many people that don't know how to get AIDS and how to protect yourself.

"Too many are narrow-minded about how the virus is spread or not spread." He said the majority get it through heterosexual sex. The number of cases are rapidly climbing, specifically among minority groups.

Eastern North Carolina is particularly susceptible, he said, calling it an "AIDS belt, a syphilis belt" because of the traffic on I-95 going back and forth.

In the last few years, Atkins said there has been an average of 40,000 cases diagnosed nationally each year. It is now closer to 45,000 to 50,000 cases.

The statistics may appear stable, Atkins said, but only because instead of education and behavior changes, there is a new pattern occurring.

"We're now dealing with a wave of apathy," he said. "People thinking, I'll just take my pills and when I test positive, I'll just take my pills. It's better never to get infected." Atkins said he does not believe the responsibility of educating the public falls on the government.

"We have to take this responsibility," he said. "Our churches and our schools and groups like this, we have a responsibility to ourselves and that's where we have to stand up." Free and confidential testing is available through the Health Department, said nurses Sheila Warren and Annette VonWald, who also spoke at the forum. Since January, six people have tested positive in Wayne County, but that number is not conclusive, Ms. VonWald said.

"Dr. Atkins has probably met more than that who end up in the hospital that never tested," she said. "Our tests just tell if you are HIV-positive. We don't have an AIDS test." Ms. VonWald said the Health Department identified 37 new cases of HIV in 2002, 23 in 2003, and 21 in 2004. There were 25 cases of AIDS identified in 2002, 11 in 2003, and 12 in 2004.

Alton Vinson of WayneAIDS said the forum is the first of many events the group hopes to present to the public.

"We're trying to reach what's not being reached," he said. Volunteers are needed to lend support to the effort, he said.

"We need to know there are people willing to end this fight," said Vinson. "It's a big fight; we need your help."

WayneAIDS meets on the third Monday of each month at 6:15 p.m. at Wayne County Health Department. For more information, people can call 736-8190.

Other programs are also being introduced to support those dealing with the disease and those concerned about them. Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Center is behind a community outreach effort, Willing to Touch, to educate the faith community and the public at large about HIV and AIDS, and bring about an awareness to the AIDS dilemma. The phone number is 581-9178.

Community Care Center of Wayne County is another organization, begun in 2002. The need for its existence is great, said CEO Essau McMorris.

"We need support, we need help with volunteers, money, grants and prayer," he said. "This is a battle, a spiritual battle."The center's goal is to provide quality care and access to care, he said, as well as to coordinate support groups.