AIDS's Somber Reminder

Lisa Frazier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 1999; 11:13 AM

Willie Stewart had never thought much about AIDS, and he certainly had no idea that the disease is growing rapidly among young African Americans like him.

But then Stewart, 21, a senior at Howard University, wandered upstairs in the university's student center yesterday and saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

"I didn't realize AIDS affected so many African Americans," Stewart said after seeing face after face that reminded him of himself. "I didn't expect it to touch so close to home. . . . It just struck me, like, man, this is reality."

As people across the nation reflect on the universal AIDS crisis today during World AIDS Day, organizations and institutions in the Washington area announced a series of programs designed to educate young African Americans and Latinos about the growing rate of HIV and AIDS among them.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, Surgeon General David Satcher said black organizations must fight AIDS in this country the way they fought for civil rights in the 1960s.

"We need to find a way within our communities to motivate people to change their behavior," he told students and faculty at Morehouse College's School of Medicine at a teleconference that was beamed to a number of traditionally black medical schools. "The government can't do that. We can't sit up there in Washington and find a way to motivate people to change their behavior."

While African Americans make up just 12 percent of the population, they accounted for 48 percent of new AIDS cases reported in 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Latinos, about 11 percent of the population, made up another 20 percent the same year.

African Americans account for 63 percent of the new HIV infections reported to the CDC, and 60 percent of newly infected women are African American. The crisis is even more severe in the District, which has the highest adolescent HIV-infection rate in the nation.

Public health officials say the disease continues to spread among young men and women because they do not see themselves as being at risk and often fail to protect themselves. In minority communities, AIDS still is considered a stigma, a disease associated with drug use and homosexuality. Until recently, community and religious leaders were reluctant to put the AIDS crisis at the forefront of their agendas.

Last October, the Clinton administration, pushed by the Congressional Black Caucus, set aside $ 156 million to target minorities with AIDS education and prevention programs.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt will travel to several of the nation's historically black colleges and universities through in the spring as part of an initiative to raise AIDS awareness among minority students. Portions of the quilt will be on display through today at the Blackburn Center, and it is free and open to the public.

"The demographics of the epidemic really have changed," said Andy Ilves, executive director of the Names Project Foundation, which sponsors the AIDS quilt. "But changing demographics is really a clinical description for what really has become a holocaust in the African American community. It's killing African Americans at a tremendous rate."

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