The turnout at an AIDS conference in Southeast Washington yesterday was smaller than the sponsoring Catholic parish had expected, but some public health officials and AIDS workers said they were encouraged that about 50 people, most of them black, turned out to learn more about the virus that is disproportionately affecting blacks nationwide.
In recent months, many health officials have said that blacks are not seeking and receiving enough accurate information about the virus, and have called for black churches to be more vocal about it.
Yesterday's conference, sponsored by the The Faith Community of St. Teresa of Avila, was about the facts, figures, fears and phobias surrounding the deadly disease and how individuals and communities can prevent the death toll from rising.
"We need to know the facts to fight the fear," said Dr. Celia Maxwell, an infectious-disease specialist at Howard University. "We cannot point fingers. It doesn't matter how the person got it. We all are at risk, period. We need to keep the love and the understanding and we need to reach a hand out."
Said Gilbert Gerald, director of minority affairs for the National AIDS Network: "It is community action at the grass roots that is going to stop the spread of AIDS."
As of Friday, 1,731 AIDS cases had been reported in the Washington area, including Maryland and Northern Virginia, said Jean Tapscott, AIDS coordinator for the District's Commission of Public Health.
In the District alone, there have been 1,028 cases, of which 52 percent were blacks, Tapscott said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, blacks, who account for 12 percent of the general U.S. population, accounted for 25 percent of the 51,547 AIDS cases reported nationwide as of Feb. 1.
Of the black people with AIDS, 39 percent contracted the virus through homosexual behavior and 36 percent through intravenous drug use.
Other causes included transfusions of contaminated blood and heterosexual contacts.
Because it can take as long as 10 years for symptoms of the AIDS virus to surface, health officials expect the numbers of cases to continue to grow.
"Right now, AIDS is not killing people in huge numbers, but as you can see the future is scaring us to death," said Dr. Herbert Nickens, directer of the U.S. Office of Minority Health.
The panelists preached precaution. In sexual terms, that means abstinence or monogamy and the use of condoms, they said.
Terrence May, 23, of Upper Marlboro attended the conference to learn more about AIDS and how to keep from getting it. He said he has several black homosexual friends who do not seem concerned enough about their health.
"They really don't like to talk about it," he said. "Sometimes I go out to clubs and they're more concerned about materialistic things more so than health."
Panelist Larry Ellis said he knows he will die soon.
After he was diagnosed as an AIDS sufferer, he help found Lifelink, a group that helps people with AIDS learn to live with the virus rather than simply wait for death.
"I am Larry Ellis," he said to the crowd. "I am a person living with AIDS. I was diagnosed about a year ago. I am not dying with AIDS. I'm living with the virus."