Back when it was thought that only gays caught acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the prejudiced among us said, so what? Conventional stereotyping held that gays were mostly white men from Dupont Circle, and some of the religious among us saw their illness as just punishment from God.
But the at-risk groups continue to increase, and now include intravenous drug users (heroin users) and prostitutes. Statistics show that these two groups have placed the AIDS virus squarely within the District's black community.
Yet, as the at-risk population continues to grow, the fight against AIDS in this city is still being waged primarily by gay rights groups. And since many people want to stay away from anybody suspected of having AIDS -- including the gay lobbyist -- not enough is being done to prevent this deadly disease.
Of the more than 13,000 AIDS cases reported nationwide to the Centers for Disease Control since 1981, about 70 percent or more are gay men; 18 percent are intravenous drug users, and the remainder hemophiliacs and persons receiving multiple blood transfusions.
But there are ethnic issues involved with AIDS, and if it takes raising those issues to get more people in this city concerned, consider this:
More than 52 percent of the AIDS cases in the District are black men. Across the country, blacks account for about 25 percent of all reported AIDS cases, according to Dr. Wayne Greaves, chief of infectious diseases at Howard University who also heads the city government's Committee on AIDS Issues. Yet black people make up only 12.1 percent of the national population.
In the case of white men infected with the AIDS virus, 91 percent are homosexual while only 8 percent are intravenous drug users. With black men, 49 percent are homosexual while 38 percent are intravenous drug users.
Thus, with more than 15,000 heroin addicts in the city, the potential for an epidemic looms large. So what is being done about it?
Earlier this month, a coalition of gay rights groups asked D.C. Mayor Marion Barry for $1.5 million to handle more than 200 new cases of AIDS expected in the city next year. Citing public health figures showing that the number of AIDS cases has doubled in the last six months, the AIDS committee predicts a total of 465 cases of AIDS in the District by next October.
"While more money and research are being targeted toward gay victims, we need to embark on a stronger education campaign and provide money to black and Hispanic groups who are also disproportionately hit by AIDS," Greaves said. "
There have been some community efforts to get the AIDS message to blacks. Three Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in Ward 8 held a public forum on "AIDS East of the Anacostia River" last June. The Whitman-Walker Clinic won a $6,300 grant last spring to run a special media campaign on AIDS, including bus posters, targeted at blacks and Hispanics. And Black and White Men Together, a gay interracial group, introduced D.C. disk jockeys this weekend to a new AIDS rap record, "Respect Yourself," which was produced by the Philadephia mayor's AIDS Task Force. The song also is aimed at black and Hispanic audiences.
But more action is needed. For starters, drugstores that provided free colon cancer tests could offer free syringes. Clearly it is not the availability of needles that causes heroin addiction, but the lack of clean needles that is causing AIDS to spread among the city's drug addicts.
Why the black community has a disproportionate number of AIDS victims remains a matter of interest among researchers.
If more residents don't become involved, it is likely that the spread of the virus will always be a step ahead of community awareness. And time is clearly running out.