US Blacks Getting AIDS
At Record Rates
By Lauran Neergaard
AP Medical Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Black Americans are becoming infected with AIDS at record rates, receiving poorer care than whites and dying faster.
Now, almost two decades into the AIDS epidemic, about 1,000 health care providers and activists gathered for the first medical conference on AIDS among black Americans _ a frantic hunt for ways to fight the exploding racial divide.
AIDS in the United States is evolving from a disease that once mostly affected white homosexuals into one largely of poor blacks, often infected from dirty drug needles or heterosexual encounters.
Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but a devastating 45 percent of new AIDS cases. AIDS has been the leading killer of blacks between 25 to 44 for most of the decade. One in 50 black men and one in 160 black women are estimated to be infected.
``This is an historic event,'' Phill Wilson of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum told the conference Thursday. ``What we do ... will determine whether or not we make a difference.''
``This is no less a daunting challenge than we faced in the civil rights movement,'' added Dr. Stephen Thomas of Emory University.
The doctors, social workers and activists sought practical, day-to-day advice on fighting HIV, the AIDS virus, in communities often wracked by poverty and drugs, where a legacy of racism has left distrust of the medical system.
How do you get a drug user or a homeless person tested for HIV? How do you treat the hotel maid who can't afford the time off to go to a clinic only open weekdays? You're surprised that the bus driver quit taking the AIDS medicine you prescribed _ even though the main side effect was diarrhea?
``We're talking about reaching ... people who might not have had a meal since noon yesterday, and they're still sitting in the clinic'' for four hours because the doctor overbooked, complained Debra Hickman of Baltimore's Sisters Together and Reaching.
Then came the thorny issue of preventing and treating HIV in prisons. ``Our men are in the jails. They do come home to their wives and girlfriends,'' warned a California AIDS worker, describing one reason HIV infection is growing fast among black women.
Nor do many black doctors specialize in AIDS, complained a Colorado nurse who described herself as the only black AIDS health worker in her town. White doctors ``do care, but they don't understand when I say, 'Patients don't trust you.'''
President Clinton has declared AIDS among minorities a crisis.
The administration is spending $156 million this year and seeking $171 million next year to fight back.
But Clinton last year refused to use federal money to buy clean needles for drug addicts, one way to prevent HIV's spread. Frustrated at the ban, administration doctors urged local communities Thursday to raise the money themselves for needle exchanges.
And critics questioned if the government's work is fair: One new program calls for 35 percent of AIDS research sites to be in minority communities, but two-thirds of new infections now occur in those communities.
The conference's main goal was to empower workers on the front lines of AIDS, providing information and resources to help their communities, said Cornelius Baker of the National Association of People With AIDS.
He said, ``We need to make care more culturally appropriate. Maybe clinics need Sunday hours, or you could give health care at church after Sunday services.''
And grass-roots doctors who don't often get to the fancy international AIDS meetings hungered for the latest data, questioning experts on which drugs to use.
``We can be flexible,'' said Dr. Joel Gallant of Johns Hopkins University. Not everyone needs that much-publicized but expensive ``protease inhibitor'' cocktail right away, he said. Newly infected patients with low HIV levels might be all right not starting drugs for a while. Got a patient who won't swallow 15 pills a day? Some new drugs require far fewer.
But there were no easy solutions.
Take Gallant's advice for doctors to test even newly diagnosed patients' blood to see if their HIV will resist certain drugs. The immediate response: Medicaid and other programs don't pay for those tests, so how can we use them?