HIV testing day raises AIDS awareness

At least 17 people in Juneau known to have AIDS, Shanti says

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Health activists know who is most likely to catch the virus that causes AIDS. They're hoping Thursday's National HIV Testing Day will help spread that knowledge to those most at risk of catching the deadly disease.

"I think it's hard for people in Juneau to feel there is a problem here, to hear that there is AIDS in Juneau," said Eileen Wilson, executive director of the health education group Shanti of Southeast. "But we know of 17 people in Juneau with AIDS and that's just people who have utilized our services."

Shanti, the Juneau Public Health Center, Gastineau Human Services and St. Vincent de Paul team up Thursday to offer free testing for the human immunodeficiency virus, known as HIV, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, known as AIDS.

While HIV infection crosses boundaries such as sex, race, age and sexual orientation, those most at risk are people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners and inject drugs, said public health nurse Sonja Engle.

"It's usually promiscuous activity that's causing them to come in and get tested, or a drug history," said Engle, who works for the public health center.

When it began to spread in the United States in the early 1980s, AIDS was considered a disease of promiscuous gay men and intravenous drug users. It also hit hemophiliacs and others who had transfusions of blood or blood products as well as babies born to infected mothers.

Alaska recorded its first known HIV case in 1982. Through the end of 2001, 824 HIV cases were reported statewide, 571 with diagnosed AIDS, said Wendy Craytor, HIV/STD program coordinator for the state Division of Public Health.

Statistics show that 46 percent of Alaska's HIV cases have been gay men, 12 percent have been those who inject drugs, and 10 percent have been heterosexuals in contact with others at high risk of the ailment. Five percent were gay men who injected drugs and 24 percent could not be classified. Hemophiliacs, transplant or transfusion recipients, and babies born to infected mothers made up 1 percent each or less.

Health educators have targeted high-risk people as well as the public in general for education programs, advocating monogamy, condoms and single-use needles as ways to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The number of new cases peaked at about 60 cases a year in the early to mid '90s, then began to drop, with only 24 new cases in 2001, the lowest number since 1984. New drugs have extended the lives of those with the disease. But HIV and AIDS are still out there and the risks are the same for people sharing needles or engaging in sex without a condom.

"They should not have any reason to relax their vigilance in this area," Craytor said.

Those infected with HIV can take a long time to develop cancer, pneumonia, extreme diarrhea and the other opportunistic infections that are symptoms of AIDS.

"People can go 10 or more years having this virus without knowing they're sick," Wilson said.

One of the best ways to prevent the further spread of HIV is to test people at higher risk of the disease. Tests are available on a regular basis at the public health center near Twin Lakes and through outreach programs such as national testing day.

Free, confidential blood tests will be offered Thursday from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at Gastineau Human Services in Lemon Creek, 10:45-noon at the AWARE shelter on Glacier Highway, 1-3 p.m. at St. Vincent de Paul behind the Nugget Mall, and 3:30-5 p.m. at the Shanti office above McDonald's downtown. For details, call Shanti at 463-5665.

While 17 people in Juneau are known to have AIDS, many more may be infected with HIV and could unknowingly spread the disease, Wilson said.

"Statistically, for everyone who has AIDS, four are HIV-positive," she said. "That's why testing day is so important because there are so many people walking around who don't know it."

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