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Thread: AIDS in Charlotte, North Carolina

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    AIDS in Charlotte, North Carolina

    By Tina Susman
    Staff Correspondent

    August 18, 2004

    Charlotte, N.C. -- It was a scientific discovery that no scientist wanted to make, an outbreak one likened to a looming genocide of young, black men.

    In November 2002, North Carolina health officials began a new form of blood testing designed to catch HIV infection far sooner than standard screening, which often doesn't detect the virus for two or three months after it enters the body. They quickly found five HIV cases in people with infections so fresh they had tested negative in conventional screenings.

    Surprisingly, two were black college students from the same small town, yet they didn't know each other.

    "That got us to thinking there might be a problem," said Dr. Peter Leone, an AIDS researcher with the state Department of Health.

    He and others began reviewing known HIV cases in North Carolina college men dating back to 2000. They were alarmed at what they found. In 2000, the number infected with HIV was six. In 2001, it was 19. By 2002 the number was 29. By the end of 2003, it had jumped to 84, and 73 of them -- 88 percent -- were black.

    Interviews with the students uncovered a total of 119 HIV cases once their sexual contacts were added in, and indicated a network of sexual activity spanning two dozen colleges in six states and the District of Columbia.

    "There has never been a description of a cluster of HIV cases among college students like this, ever," said Leone, who called the trend a "potential genocidal issue" affecting young black men.

    "It's not a good foretelling of where HIV is moving," he said. "This is the next wave."

    The numbers are indicative of the racial disparity involving the spread of AIDS in the United States, where blacks comprise 12 percent of the population but accounted for 54 percent of new HIV cases in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    When new cases are concentrated in such a young population, as in North Carolina's college students, researchers say the numbers are particularly ominous because of the potential threat to the best and the brightest of America's young black men.

    No single state's problem

    "In Africa it has really wiped out a generation of educated young people," said Dr. David Jolly, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Education at North Carolina Central University in Raleigh, one of 11 Historically Black Colleges and Universities -- a consortium of colleges founded to educate African-Americans -- in the state. Jolly is also director of the counseling center at NCCU. "I don't know if that's where we're headed here, but I do think that this is not a North Carolina phenomenon. If it's happening here, it's probably happening in other states as well."

    Researchers, educators and students are trying to determine what led to the spike and how to stop it, an effort that is forcing them to confront issues such as homosexuality and bisexuality that are often ignored or hushed up in the black community. In addition, it is highlighting some of the shortfalls of AIDS education programs, which blacks say for too long have presented the disease as one of older gay, white men.

    "I ask people, 'How do you get AIDS,' and they say, 'Oh, by being gay,'" said DeMishea Charleston, 20, a student at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., who teaches fellow students about HIV and AIDS. She is among 32 so-called peer educators at the school, which is in the system of historically black colleges.

    Complexity of coming out

    And few black college men feel comfortable admitting to being gay or bisexual, particularly in the conservative South, where Charleston said the church plays a prominent role in most African-Americans' lives.

    "In the black community, you just don't come out and say things like that, things that you know the church is down on, that you know are going to be detrimental to your position in the community," said Charleston, herself deeply religious. In addition, counselors say coming out is more difficult for black men in a society where they already are marginalized for the color of their skin.

    "I would surmise that if you were black, white, yellow, brown, purple, or pink with red dots, if you are in fact not sure of your orientation that's not something you're going to rush out and announce to the world, but particularly if you happen to be a minority kid," said Phyllis Gray of the state Health Department, who has been working to enhance HIV education among blacks.

    In fact, 67 of the 73 infected black men told researchers they had sex with other men, but they did not consider themselves gay and did not think they were at risk of contracting HIV. Twenty-seven of those men said they also had sex with women, raising fears that the spike in HIV-positive black college men will spread to young black women.

    Not everyone's convinced

    The denial of one's homosexuality or bisexuality contributes to the spread of HIV in a number of ways. Those in denial are less likely to prepare themselves for a sexual encounter with another man by carrying condoms when they go to clubs or parties where gay men congregate, Leone said. If they have wives or girlfriends, they are less likely to use condoms for fear of arousing their female partner's suspicions. Additionally, if they consider AIDS a gay disease but don't call themselves gay, they convince themselves that they are immune to it regardless of how they behave. Teaching AIDS prevention is also hampered when men are in denial.

    "If they did identify themselves as gay and if they belonged to organizations for gay men, you could do HIV education for them through those organizations," said Jolly. "But if they don't associate with gay organizations, it's harder to reach them."

    Schools like Johnson C. Smith and North Carolina Central have beefed up their peer education programs in the wake of the findings. Among other things, they are increasing the number of student educators and counselors and planning free HIV testing for students. In addition, incoming freshmen who start classes Aug. 23 are being given hour-long classes dubbed HIV 101 that provide instruction in putting on condoms, and that debunk misconceptions about AIDS: that it can be spread by kissing, that you can tell by looking at someone if they are HIV-positive, that AIDS is no longer a lethal disease thanks to new drugs.

    In North Carolina, where policy in public schools is to teach abstinence-only in place of sex education, student educators say such courses are crucial. "They don't really know what HIV is or how it's transmitted," said Elisha Washington, 20, a peer educator at Johnson C. Smith, who recalls explaining to one freshmen class how rapidly the virus could spread. "Their reaction was 'no way, that can't happen.'"

    One of the most effective ways to reach students is by having HIV-infected students speak to them, something difficult to do given the stigma of not only being a gay black man, but a gay black man with HIV.

    "Why would any reasonably rational, thinking individual want to come out and talk about something they are going through when society doesn't foster an environment that would encourage him to do so?" said Jonathan Perry, 27, a Johnson C. Smith senior who nevertheless disclosed in 2001 that he is gay and HIV-positive.

    Perry said he was prompted to come out during a school discussion on AIDS, because rumors had spread that he had the disease. Perry wanted to make clear even though he carried the virus, he was not dying of AIDS.

    While Perry said he has not been shunned by fellow students, he acknowledges that his own mother has been reluctant to accept him as either gay or HIV-positive. In addition, he and others acknowledge that so far, no other gay, HIV-positive college students in the state have joined him in going public.

    At schools in the HBCU network, where women students far outnumber men, the HIV statistics have complicated male-female relationships. With so many of the infected men describing themselves as straight even while having sex with other men -- a practice known as being on the down low -- female students admit to a new wariness.

    "You don't know if they're gay or straight," said Washingon. Carleston described herself as far more reluctant to date, and often skeptical and stand-offish when approached by male students.

    One positive outcome of the frightening findings has been to open up discussion about HIV, AIDS, and sexual practices among young blacks, counselors and researchers say. North Carolina remains the only state to have studied AIDS among college students, though, raising concerns that the trend is spreading unchecked elsewhere.

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    Post Re: AIDS - Charlotte,North Carolina

    This article gives me yet another good reason to get out of this place as fast as possible!

    In North Carolina, where policy in public schools is to teach abstinence-only in place of sex education...
    True; also, in eighth grade, they showed us pictures of STD-ridden genitals in order to scare us into abstinence. Needless to say, this doesn't seem to be a very effective method of 'sex education'.

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