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Silent War: HIV/AIDS in Virginia

Even with increased education, HIV/AIDS cases in Virginia increase every year.

At the end of September 2005, more than 26,000 people in Virginia were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Of those infected, in 2004, the Northern Virginia region had the second largest population of infected people with 386 reported cases. The eastern part of the state came in first with 417 reported cases.

These are frustrating statistics for local health departments because HIV and AIDS are easily prevented, but at the present time incurable.

“We could do education all the time and we would still need to do more,” said Suzanne Dorick, public health nurse in the Fairfax County Health Department’s HIV/AIDS clinic. “A certain part of the population has this attitude of ‘it won’t happen to me’ because they think they are invincible.”

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is the virus that causes the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. HIV infection is caused by the exchange of blood, semen or vaginal secretions with a person infected with the virus, such as by having sex or sharing needles. Pregnant women infected with HIV can also pass the virus to their babies at birth or through breast milk. HIV attacks a body's immune system so that it is less able to fight off germs and diseases.

Currently, no cure exists for HIV or AIDS, although drugs are available to prolong someone’s life once infected.

TO INCREASE AWARENESS about the deadly disease, local health departments have done everything from sending motivational speakers to address high school students to creating partnerships outside of their jurisdictions. Through these partnerships, health and volunteer resources are combined so officials can reach farther into the community.

One recent collaboration occurred Feb. 9 when the Arlington County Health Department partnered with the Fairfax County Health Department and the Whitman-Walker clinic, a non-profit health organization serving those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The groups joined to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in south Arlington County.

The event fell two days after a state-wide awareness campaign run by the state department of health to increase HIV/AIDS awareness in the community, specifically the African-American community. National HIV/AIDS awareness days like this are scheduled throughout the year, targeting different racial groups and genders.

Through the Arlington event, health officials from both departments joined Whitman-Walker volunteers and nursing students from Georgetown University to conduct four hours of outreach by offering confidential and anonymous HIV/AIDS testing. The group also gave out prevention information, free condoms and, for those who tested positive, counseling information.

“Between ONE-FOURTH to one-third of the people don’t know they are HIV positive so they are unknowingly giving it to their partners,” said Dorick about transmission. “People need to be aware of it so they can be able to prevent it.”

While high risk populations do exist, Martha Andom, health educator with the Arlington County Health Department, does not want to single out any segment because anyone practicing unsafe behaviors could become infected, she said.

“If you’re having unprotected sex, even if it is just once, that could lead to infection,” she said. “We need to get information out there regularly so people are aware.”

During the one-day awareness event, the message delivered was not solely directed to the African-American population, said Evelyn Poppell, communicable disease bureau chief for the Arlington County Health Department.

“We’re trying to educate on the behaviors that are risky so that they can make changes to those behaviors,” she said. “This awareness day should serve as a call for African Americans and for anyone else in the community to get tested and be aware.”

BY THE END OF 2004, 1,283 people in Virginia had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, according to the state department of health. Of those, 786 were African-American and 372 were white.

The number one cause of death in African-American women ages 25 to 34 is HIV/AIDS, Andom said. Because people can live with HIV and not know it, the only way to know if someone has the disease is to get the HIV test. This is the first step area health departments are educating residents to take in the fight against HIV and AIDS, along with encouraging people to practice safe behaviors.

“Not having sex and not shooting drugs are the best ways to prevent HIV,” said Dorick. “If you are going to have sex, always use a condom, and if you are going to do drugs, don’t share needles.”

In its educational campaign, the state health department advocates abstinence, or not having sex until marriage, and avoiding illegal drugs, especially intravenous drugs.

But, because not everyone adheres to these guidelines, health officials also offer another level of recommendations. People who are sexually active should use a new latex condom correctly each time they have sex of any kind, while a dental dam or plastic food wrap should be used when performing oral sex on a woman, according to the health department.

People who take intravenous drugs, including steroids and skin popping, should never share needles. If for some reason they do share a needle, it should be cleaned after use by rinsing twice with full-strength bleach. The bleach should be left in the needle for 30 seconds each time, then rinsed with water.

While any demographic of the population can get HIV/AIDS, area health departments are addressing students at alternative high schools, prisoners in juvenile and adult detention centers and older adults who are recently single and possibly have begun dating again, Dorick said.

“It’s really the whole idea of people not knowing their status,” said Andom. “When people don’t know their status, they cannot take control of the situation.”