Wednesday, February 07, 2001

AIDS fight targeting young, gay black men

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Debora Burstion, a foot soldier fighting the spread of HIV in Cincinnati's African-American community, knocks on doors and hands out literature at local hair salons and nightclubs.

        When it comes to young black gay men, Ms. Burstion often changes her tactics. The 48-year-old woman seeks them out on the streets of West End, Evanston, Avondale, Corryville, Walnut Hills and Over-the-Rhine to deliver her message.

        They need to realize that they're not invincible and can contract HIV, the AIDS-causing virus, like anyone else, she said.

[photo] Reaching out to young black men to prevent the spread of AIDS is the work of Cheryl Hutchins (right) and Debora Burstion of AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        A recent report that one in three young gay black men is HIV-infected most likely will become part of Ms. Burstion's message, she said.

        “It's not over,” said Ms. Burstion, who lost several friends — all African-American men — to AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “They need to protect themselves. They're still vulnerable.”

        Ms. Burstion does outreach for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC), which echoes the recent findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

        The study said that, among young gay men in large U.S. cities, 3 percent of Asians, 7 percent of whites, 15 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of blacks are infected with HIV.

        Local health officials, AIDS educators, African-American organizations and church representatives say intensified education and awareness programs and efforts that consider cultural differences will go a long way.

        “We certainly would like to ... slow that progress, but it's not going to happen unless there's a big, big effort made,” said Kathryn Thompson, AVOC's education coordinator.

        She said African-Americans now make up 55 percent of AVOC's clientele base. The agency mainly served gay white males when it started more than 15 years ago.

        “It's been gradual. (But) you can see that it's hitting that population extremely hard,” she said.

        Dr. Judith Daniels, medical di rector for the Cincinnati Health Department, said the challenge is figuring out how to connect with subgroups such as young, male African-Americans.

        What works in one community might not work in the next, she said.

        “That's what we're trying desperately to learn,” she said. “There certainly isn't a measure (where) one size fits all. Human behavior after all is the most complicated (thing) in the universe. Modifying it certainly is a challenge.”

        Cincinnati's African-American community is addressing the problem. For example, the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati has an AIDS education and awareness program; in March, about 200 ministers are participating in Cincinnati's annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's local chapter plans to study HIV and other health issues affecting African-Americans within the next two years.

        “The African-American community has to take a look at that,” said Norma Holt Davis, chapter president. “Community education has to be a first priority. Especially among young people, there's this impression of infallibility.”

        Paul Trickel of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department said that addressing youth is especially difficult.

        Health officials acknowledge that young gay men have grown up knowing about HIV and AIDS. Yet, they said, the group also has learned that drug cocktails can prolong life indefinitely.

        “Younger people think they're invincible,” he said.

       JONES: “They're still vulnerable,” Ms. Burstion says.


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