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HIV rates are higher than previously believed--but you can help turn the tide

Earlier this month, U.S. health officials acknowledged that their statistics have understated the level of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The numbers are always too high for me. I'm perplexed by the number of people who don't know their status, because they are scared of what they may find out--even though people with the virus are living longer and more stable lives these days.

My heart goes out to the young woman who won't demand that her boyfriend, lover or "friend with benefits" wear a condom each and every time. Many women are afraid to broach the subject, fearing that the demand will make him think less of her, or that he'll accuse her of cheating around on him.

What it could result in is a sad game of Russian roulette with your life.

As a national trainer of trainers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved Street Smart program, I know first-hand that prevention programs reduce high-risk behaviors while increasing self-esteem.

While Street Smart is aimed at young people involved in more than one high-risk behavior, its principles can be applied to anyone engaging in unsafe sex practices. In addition, we know that HIV counseling and testing do reduce risk behaviors and help link people living with HIV to medical care and treatment. Behavioral and social interventions like Street Smart, realistic sex-ed classes and forums with brave warriors willing to share their stories of living with HIV to the "it can't happen to me crowd"--they all work.

Faith-based communities in cities all around the country are beginning to meet with community-based organizations to have a dialogue on how to talk not only to congregations, but to offer street ministry to those who feel they will be harshly judged inside church walls. We have to have a meaningful dialogue with people: Yes, people are having unprotected sex and becoming infected, and too many are dying. That's reality. Those needing a reality check include young people who we think may be too young to hear the message, as well as seniors we may incorrectly assume are no longer sexually active. All it takes is one occurrence of unprotected sex to result in a fateful exchange of bodily fluids with someone who is infected.

The Journal of the American Medical Association released the first HIV incidence estimates from a new national surveillance system, the first of its kind in the world that is based on the direct measurement of new HIV infections. The release of this new CDC-developed technology makes the following possible 1) better targeting of prevention programs; (2) measurement and evaluation processes to be more precise; (3) more information to aid in resource-allocation decisions.

According to the CDC, 2006 incidence estimates show:

• Gay and bisexual men of all races remain the group most highly affected by HIV, accounting for 53 percent of all new infections.

• The impact of HIV is greater among blacks than any other racial or ethnic group, with an HIV incidence rate that is seven times higher than that of whites (83.7 out of 100,000 for blacks, compared to 11.5 out of 100,000 for whites and 29.3 out of 100,000 for Latinos).

The overall levels of HIV infection in the United States are just too high.

To help combat HIV/AIDS locally, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation is looking for anyone trained as an AIDS educator or anybody who's been in client-support training during the last year and a half to sign up to become a facilitator for SAAF volunteer trainings. A free facilitator training is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 16, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will be led by Paolo Preston at SAAF, located at 375 S. Euclid Ave.

If interested, please RSVP up until the day of the course with David Rubenstein, community education and resources manager, at 628-7223.

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