ANNAPOLIS – Despite ranking 19th in state population, Maryland is fifth in the annual number of AIDS incidences, a statistic fueled by drug use and cited by activists trying to make the state do more to combat the virus.
“I have seen the community be very scared and confused because of the myths that were out there originally, and some that are still out there about the transmission of HIV,” said Stephanie Brooks-Wiggins, president of the People with AIDS Coalition of Baltimore and a person living with the virus for 17 years. “It’s a constant struggle to get people to listen.”
Today marks the 13th annual World AIDS Day, seen by many HIV/AIDS carriers and activists as an opportunity to publicize their efforts to increase research, beef up prevention education and awareness, lobby for state funding and help others fight the epidemic that has killed or infected 60 million people since its discovery 20 years ago.
Friday, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, launched a new initiative, called Maryland PUSH, to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS in northwest Baltimore.
The campaign adds AIDS counselors, drug treatment slots and testing sites to get more people into treatment and help prevent the virus’ spread.
More than 22,000 Marylanders are living with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, or AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, while more than 11,000 have died since AIDS’ discovery, according to a study by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Baltimore has the eighth highest rate among metropolitan areas and accounts for more than half of all Maryland cases. Prince George’s County ranks a distant second at 13.6 percent of HIV and AIDS cases.
Experts say rampant drug use is to blame for the high incidence rates.
“Maryland’s problem with the HIV epidemic in Maryland is absolutely fueled by drug use,” said Liza Solomon, director of the state AIDS administration. “We have to have our efforts dovetailed with drug prevention and drug addiction treatment. That’s where the challenge is for us.”
AIDS awareness and prevention education in the school system also needs to be part of the next step, said Brooks-Wiggins. And prices for medication, which can cost more than $20,000 a year, must come down.
AIDS activists worry that the state’s budget contraction – the governor has ordered cost-saving measures worth $205 million and instituted a hiring freeze – will mean less funding for AIDS programs.
“Fewer than 5,000 were killed by the Sept. 11 disaster, (yet) hundreds of thousands are affected by AIDS,” said Doug Rose, spokesman for the AIDS Legislative Committee, a Maryland grassroots advocacy organization. “There is a little terrorist already in our midst called the AIDS virus. We need not let down our guard on that virus or there will be many, many more deaths.”
Because much of Maryland’s AIDS budget is federally funded, the hit may mild. About 86 percent of the 2002 budget, totaling about $50 million, comes from the federal government.
Some legislators said most of the funding is secure, but cautioned against too much optimism. Budget cuts in drug abuse treatment and sexually transmitted disease prevention are possible, said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, and that will affect AIDS rates because of the strong correlation between those behaviors and the disease.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening will await estimates from the Board of Revenues in mid-December before making any decision on budget cuts.
“It is way too early to be making any sort of forecast as to where the budget will be,” said spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie. “The governor wants to make sure that services for people in need stay intact.”
Despite a reduction in AIDS cases and a 42 percent decline in AIDS deaths in 1996-97 attributable to the discovery of antiviral medicine, the decline has leveled off and the Maryland health department study shows males and African- Americans remain at greatest risk of contracting the virus.
AIDS is also the leading cause of death among middle-aged blacks and black women, according to the national Black Coalition on AIDS.
“I’ve seen the introduction of AIDS drugs and seen people’s quality of life improve dramatically (but) the epidemic is not over,” said Brooks-Wiggins.
She hopes breakthroughs in the establishment of a vaccine will occur within five years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 Americans are infected with HIV, including roughly 320,000 who have full-blown AIDS. As many as a third of HIV patients don’t know they have the virus.