The number of people living with HIV and AIDS in Ohio is increasing. Since the mid 1990's, the number of cases climbed by nearly 4,000 people. Still, these statistics represent those living with the disease. Deaths are on the decline thanks to new drug regimens and a better understanding of the virus. But those who work with infected people say the attitude toward the disease has gotten too relaxed and the public needs to realize AIDS is still a threat to the community. 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports.
Tarice Sims: All month, the AIDS taskforce of Greater Cleveland has spent every Friday honoring "heroes in the struggle" - those who spend countless hours working with people who have contracted HIV and AIDS. At a recent event, Bruce Jones shared his story as not only a social worker in Cleveland but as someone living with the disease. He lived in San Francisco when AIDS awareness first came to light and says when he returned to Cleveland, he was disheartened by the way people viewed the disease.
Bruce Jones: When I came here people were whispering 'the virus' you know not even really saying it and still really still. And in terms of African American gay men and the gay community it's not really cohesive here it's trying there are people here you know who are leading that fight but it's a slow fight.
TS: Jones adds progress is slow because of who AIDS is identified with and in a conservative city like Cleveland it proves to be a difficult barrier. The Ohio Department of Health reports men who have sex with men continue to have the leading risk factor for HIV/ AIDS, and although white males accounted for most of the diagnosis last year, the number of minorities and women are on the rise. AIDS activist, George Bellinger Jr. is an honoree of the heroes in the struggle program. He says the reason it's important to have a minority voice in the struggle is because of those statistics. Bellinger adds he works with people who are afraid to say they have the disease and he says that stigma hurts their chance to get the help they need.
George Bellinger Jr.: If we're so busy putting up fronts and disguises how can you really know who I am - same thing in a relationship with a partner same thing with your family. If I don't tell my family I'm a gay man, if I don't tell my family I'm a Catholic, if I don't tell my family I don't like lima beans and they keep serving them to me and I keep saying thank you thank you, they don't know who I really am.
TS: The AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland sponsored the local event to show people not only the various faces of AIDS but also keep a spotlight on the disease. Sue Dorefor is Clinical Director of Services for the Taskforce. She says last year they reported a more than 30% increase in clients. Dorefor adds that could be attributed to the push in education within minority and heterosexual communities. But she also says the increase in clients isn't the biggest concern ... it's the public.
Sue Dorefor: The general attitude out there is AIDS is over and that there's a cure, which is not true. The new medications, which have done great for many people, are not a cure all and so, but people kind of feel in general that HIV has gone away.
TS: But the reality in Cleveland is more than 100 people are newly diagnosed every year and medications people live off of cost over $1,000 a month. And while there are organizations like University Hospitals that assist patients with the cost funding for services is still need. Dorefor says one reason the organization feels the public has a more relaxed attitude is because many people's interest in giving has diminished. The AIDS taskforce operates on a budget of nearly $2 million a year. They get several hundred thousand dollars from public contributions. But the Taskforce also gets over a million dollars from government sources, including emergency relief from the Ryan White Title I program administered by Cuyahoga County. But the money has leveled off. Matt Carroll is acting health director with the city of Cleveland.
Matt Carroll: The funding levels have been pretty much the same with a very small increase over the past few years. We've been doing a very similar amount of work over the past four or five years. So with a true increase in data you might see the government more willing to come forward with more funds.
TS: Carroll went on to say the city uses their funds to work on preventative measures specifically. Letita Lester also works with the city's health department. She says they have several partners in prevention to reach everyone who's affected.
Letita Lester: We need to continue to provide prevention education even now that we're at the 21st year of the epidemic. We still need to be in the schools and we still need to be at those youth centers talking about AIDS and the impact it can have.
TS: Lester says the City's Health department works with small neighborhood organizations including the Spanish Church of the Nazerene, and the Lexington Bell community center - because they have a direct connection with citizens. Also they maintain a relationship with the biggest organzation the AIDS Taskforce to keep people educated about the realities of HIV and AIDS. This Friday the Taskforce continues it's efforts to connect with the community as they hold the final day of the "Heroes in the Struggle" at the MLK branch of the Cleveland Public Library. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN News.