With the rise in heroin usage in this region comes another startling trend: a rise in the number of new cases of HIV. Amber Cronen, HIV project director at the Hope Center, said the increase is due to more intravenous drug use, one way to get high on heroin.
Those who come to the Hope Center, which has shelter and recovery programs for homeless or addicted men, are required to meet with a counselor who gives them a risk assessment and prevention counseling, she said. If they choose, they can also be tested for HIV.
The center received a federal grant five years ago to offer free testing and to monitor the results. That grant ends in September.
"This is a hard-to-reach population," Cronen said. "It's a population that does not seek out health or HIV information but has high risk due to injection drug use, substance abuse, mental health issues and daily survival issues.
"Many are high risk, but unaware that they are high risk, thinking that HIV is not in Kentucky or their hometowns or that they are not at risk," she said. "Many are injection drug users, who do not know how to clean needles."
The trends she has seen include a growing number of young black males with HIV; more IV drug abuse; more heroine abuse and a surprising increase in the number of men who already know they are HIV positive.
In the past five years, the center has given nearly 5,900 rapid oral tests that give results in 20 minutes, she said. Some were given to the same person more than once. Of that number, 28 tested positive for HIV and three of those were women.
Annette Pryor, who is HIV positive and an activist, said many of those with HIV are living longer, dispelling the once overbearing fear of death.
"We have these medicines and patients are living longer," she said. "There is no fear. HIV used to be a death sentence.
Pryor was diagnosed in 1997 after her ex-husband, an IV drug abuser, died of AIDS. She said no one talks about the toxicity of the drugs that HIV patients have to endure to live relatively normal lives. While she once took 22 pills, she now takes only one.
"But that is a combination of Clorox, Drano and fly spray," she said, characterizing the toxic levels of medications. Her body is paying for that, she said.
"We just don't think about that any more," she said. "And it is not just the younger people thinking they are invincible."
Some older men and women, just divorced or widowed, are making risky decisions, too.
As a means of getting the word out or reminding people of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, the Hope Center is hosting the fifth and final "Hope in the City," a family fun day during which health resources and free HIV testing will be available Aug. 18 in Douglass Park. People can enjoy musical groups, free barbecue, speakers, raffles and an inflatable for the kids. Pryor will be the emcee.
"She is the perfect person for this event," said Sara La Force, HIV grant coordinator at the Hope Center. "She emcees every year and tells her story. Last year, we served more than 500 plates of food."
Hope Center representatives and AVOL volunteers will also be on hand Aug. 3 at the 13th Annual Family Fun Resource Fair at Shiloh Baptist Church. There will be health screenings, exercise, children's activities, face painting, a Kid's Closet with gently used clothing and free backpacks.
Family events that help dim the fears of HIV are a blessing and a curse.
"One thing that we have seen is a 'normalizing' of the topic of HIV/AIDS," Cronen said. "It is so important for people to feel comfortable talking about this. I have seen our staff members become more comfortable with the subject — even if they don't work in the area of substance abuse or HIV."
At outreach events some older people say they will take prevention packets home to their children or grandchildren, she said.
"Even if they don't talk to them, they can just hand them the bag with the information. It shows that they care."
That is the blessing.
The curse is that normalizing and better medication may reduce fear. "I'd hate to think that makes people more careless," Cronen said.
I really thought we had learned our lessons about heroin and the tragic results for those addicted to it, as well as the horrors of AIDS and the stigma that is still associated with it for those infected.
I thought we had learned to take measures to ensure we avoided both. But neither is true.
"We are not thinking about HIV," Pryor said. "When was the last time you saw a TV commercial about it?
"People are living in secrecy still and they are afraid to mention it," she said.
Fine. Then we should make sure we attend one of the fun fairs to be reminded.
IF YOU GO
Two upcoming free events will offer information about HIV/AIDS and its prevention. Both include food and family fun.
Aug. 3: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 13th Annual Family Fun Resource Fair. Shiloh Baptist Church, 237 E. Fifth St. Registration for school supplies and free backpack is from 9 to 11 a.m. Parents must attend with students. Supplies distributed at noon.
Aug. 18: 1 to 4 p.m. "Hope in the City." Douglass Park, 726 Georgetown St.