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."
Carolyn R. Goode, Howard's health education coordinator, said the quilt is a powerful teaching tool. The university also planned a series of workshops that included an overview of the epidemic, a discussion of the spread of the disease among women and a demonstration of how to make the quilt panels.
"At Howard, we are dealing with a student population that almost believes they are invincible, that it can't happen to them," Goode said. "We're trying to let them know it can, as evidenced by the quilt."
Cedric Dickens, 21, a junior at Howard, walked solemnly among the quilt panels. Portions of the quilt--now massive enough to cover 25 football fields--are spread across the floor and walls of an upstairs room in the Blackburn Student Center.
"I think a lot of people don't take AIDS seriously," Dickens said. While the quilt was being unfolded at Howard yesterday morning, representatives of Children's Hospital and Metro TeenAIDS were at the hospital to announce an intensive AIDS education campaign that will target young people, particularly African Americans and Latinos ages 13 to 24, for HIV testing and medical care.
Through the program, 350 young people will distribute information and advice in schools, youth centers and other hangouts in the District, Prince George's, Alexandria and Arlington over the next few months.
The "Get Tested" campaign will include a telephone hot line to provide information about HIV testing and medical care.
Advertisements geared to young people will be featured on billboards, radio, television stations, such as BET and MTV, and Metro buses. The radio ads will feature a soap opera story line that will run three times a week on WKYS-FM (93.9) through January.
"The population that's directly affected that we are trying to reach are very disconnected to health care," said Lori Swain, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a D.C-based group that provides education, support and advocacy for youths on HIV and AIDS issues.
CAPTION: Karen McKeiver, left, and Sheila Sawyer talk about a portion of the massive AIDS quilt on display at Howard University.
CAPTION: Preschoolers from the Howard University Early Learning Center line up to leave after visiting the AIDS quilt at the Blackburn Student Center.