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Davis: Church, Hope Center band together against HIV/AIDS

If you want to, you can readily hear tragic stories in which denial still plays a major role in the high rates of HIV and AIDS in the minority community.

If you want to.

The problem is, too many people don't want to. One of the biggest obstacles to decreasing the number of new cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States is that we just don't want to talk about or deal with one of the most polarizing diseases that has ever carved a deadly scar through families, neighborhoods and countries.

That's why officials with The Hope Center and members of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church will be in Douglass Park from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 14 with food, a choir, the Trinity Mime Ministry, inflatables, and a boatload of information about HIV/AIDS. They want us to put that disease on our radar so we can't continue to believe it is occurring only in Africa or India, and the Bluegrass is safe.

As evidence the disease is still dangerous on our shores, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a National HIV/AIDS Strategy in July, structured around reducing new HIV infections, increasing access to care and improving health outcomes and health care inequities for people living with HIV.

The Rev. Troy I. Thomas, pastor of St. Paul, said he and his wife, Maxine, have been very involved in HIV/AIDS awareness programs since before moving to Lexington 21/2 years ago.

Thomas lost a relative to the disease and watched as other relatives chose not to acknowledge it, he said. He also has counseled church members who kept the disease secret from family members for fear of negative reactions.

Because of that denial, Thomas said, "our numbers (in the black community) are skyrocketing while numbers in the white community are going down."

So when the Hope Center, federal grant in hand, approached him about partnering in an outreach to blacks and Latinos, Thomas agreed.

Amber Cronen, project director of the center's HIV grants, said studies have shown that minorities listen better if minorities are doing the talking.

So joining forces with St. Paul, a predominantly black church, was a no-brainer.

The center received a five-year grant in 2008 from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration to expand free testing, prevention education and treatment for blacks, Hispanics and substance abusers, the three groups with increased incidents of the disease, she said. Denial is rampant among those groups, she added.

Many males in the Latino community still think HIV/AIDS is a gay disease, so testing is unnecessary for heterosexuals. And the women see testing as an indicator of promiscuity.

Unfortunately, what we don't know can hurt us.

At the outreach event in Douglass Park, Cronen said, free HIV testing will be available to everyone. As they wait in the privacy of at least three fan-cooled tents for the test results — which takes 20 minutes after an oral swab — counselors can give them a risk assessment that can help determine if their behavior might prove problematic.

The newer rapid testing is the result of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating some 31 percent of people did not return for results when the wait time was measured in weeks.

If the test, which is looking for certain antibodies in the saliva, is positive, Cronen said, a blood sample will be taken immediately, with those results returned in two weeks. Counselors will be on hand to caution against panic, however, she said.

Annette Owens, who is living with HIV, understands that panic. She contracted HIV from her first husband who, unbeknownst to her, was an intravenous drug user when they married.

"I expect to find some positives," Owens said of the testing. "But knowing your status is so important."

The black community, especially, still thinks HIV/AIDS is a gay disease, Owens said. She's heard people say they are not gay, they aren't prostitutes and they aren't drug users, so "they don't have to worry about that stuff.

Also, with the divorce rate what it is and with folks 50 and older venturing out into the dating scene again, precautions must be taken, she said. "They don't want to think about putting on a condom."

Denial.

That's why Thomas volunteered his church. He wants us to be acutely aware of HIV/AIDS and confront the disease head-on.

"We have to get over this stigma," he said.

Please.

And quickly.

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