California County Declares
AIDS Emergency -
'Absolutely Devastating'
OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - California's Alameda County Thursday declared a public health emergency over AIDS rates in its black community. It is the first local government in the United States to declare a regional disaster because of HIV.
The county Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution declaring the state of emergency, a move aimed at securing a bigger chunk of a new, $156 million federal program targeting AIDS in minority communities.
"The impact (of AIDS) on the African-American community has been absolutely devastating," Rep. Barbara Lee, a major force behind the declaration, told a news conference, noting that so far there had been a "stunning lack of resources" to deal with the fallout from the epidemic and prevent more infections.
By declaring a state of emergency, usually reserved for major natural disasters or civic unrest, Alameda County is pioneering a strategy championed by the Congressional Black Caucus as a means to focus attention on the threat AIDS poses to minority groups.
Just across the bay from San Francisco and covering the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, Alameda County follows after Los Angeles as home to the second largest number of black residents in California.
While nationally both AIDS mortality and infection rates are declining, minority neighborhoods such as those in Alameda County have shown a reverse trend -- fueled in part by a prevalence of risk behaviors such as intravenous drug use and in part by a lack of concerted anti-AIDS education efforts.
In Alameda County, blacks account for 18 percent of the population of 1.3 million but represent 41 percent of the county's AIDS cases. The AIDS case rate for blacks is five times that of whites and Hispanics.
Overall Alameda County has shown a 61 percent decline in the number AIDS cases over the past five years. But the number of black residents diagnosed with AIDS rose by 20 percent
Doretha Williams-Flournoy, executive director of the AIDS Project East Bay, said the emergency declaration would help to raise both money for and awareness of the AIDS crisis in the black community.
"We're trying to raise public awareness around the condition of HIV/AIDS in African-American community, more so for African-Americans than for anyone else," Williams-Flournoy said. "They need to understand that they are capable of contracting HIV and AIDS."
Last week, the United States announced the $156 million program targeting minorities, mostly blacks, who are most at risk of AIDS, aimed primarily at getting people into programs and clinics where they can get treatment and help in avoiding infection with the virus in the first place.
The funding will be used to pay for "crisis response teams" made up of nurses, epidemiologists, doctors, substance abuse experts and other specialists who will move into a community and work with local groups, tailoring programs for each specific area.
Money will also be doled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in grants for outreach programs, making testing and counseling available, running workshops and setting up substance abuse programs, as addicts are at a very high risk of HIV infection.
The program will seek to make sure that the poor have access to protease inhibitors, expensive drugs that are key to the cocktail of medications that can keep AIDS at bay in HIV-infected people.