ATLANTA, AUG. 8 -- In the first meeting of its kind, nearly 1,000 black and Hispanic leaders gathered here today to help the federal government launch a coordinated attack on acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The turnout was a surprise to the meeting's organizers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who initially said they expected no more than 100 participants.
Although AIDS is perceived as a disease of predominantly white, male homosexuals, statistics show blacks and Hispanics are three times more likely to get AIDS than are white men. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but comprise 24 percent of AIDS patients. Seven percent of the population is Hispanic as are 14 percent of those with AIDS. White, gay men make up nearly half the 39,594 people with AIDS identified since 1981.
While these ratios have not changed significantly in the last two years, several minority leaders and federal officials at the conference said they have been reluctant to emphasize the problem within these communities because of fears about increasing discrimination. As the number of deaths rose, however, the statistics became more and more difficult to ignore, said Dr. Reed Tuckson, D.C. Commissioner of Health.
It was the increase in AIDS among minority women and children that really made the difference, Tuckson added.
Nearly 80 percent of children with AIDS are minorities, often from parents who are intravenous drug-users. More than half of women with AIDS are black, and nearly 20 percent are Hispanic, according to statistics cited at the meeting.
While evidence does not suggest that minorities are more genetically susceptible, it is clear that certain cultural factors play a role, according to Harold Jaffe of the CDC. Intravenous drug abuse, for example, is much more prevalent among minority groups, especially among the poor. Sharing dirty needles is one of the most effective ways to transmit the virus that causes AIDS. Other cultural factors include a greater reluctance to use condoms or practice other forms of "safe sex."
Minority organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, have started national and regional educational programs to battle the spread of this disease. The federal government recently made $7 million available for minority programs and expects to make another $10 million available next year.
"We are just at the beginning," Tuckson said. "The problem in the black community is going to hit in two or three years."
Those who get AIDS in a few years are already infected with the virus, so prevention programs for minorities will not affect the rise in AIDS cases for five to 15 years, said Dr. Herbert Nickens, federal Office of Minority Health director. "We are really fighting for the 1990s."