While Berkeley’s efforts to reduce the number of new HIV/AIDS cases has been successful over the last six years, the city’s infection rate is still higher than that in Alameda County and California.
Health officials say they are particularly alarmed at the increasing rate of infection in the city’s black community.
According to the 1999 City of Berkeley Health Status Report, AIDS-related deaths dropped 90 percent from a peak in 1994 of 49 deaths to five deaths in 1998. At the same time, however, the rate of African Americans infected with the disease has increased.
From 1989 to 1999 the proportion of African Americans diagnosed with AIDS increased from 19.5 percent to 43 percent while the rate of whites infected decreased from 71 percent to 40.5 percent. While African Americans comprise 19 percent of the population, they represent over 31 percent of the total cumulative AIDS cases reported through 1998.
“This growing disparity is recognized as being a direct result of lack of access to the new modalities of treatment and care and the changing mode of exposure to HIV,” the city study says.
Overall males constitute the largest proportion of reported AIDS cases at 92 percent, although the rate of HIV infection is growing among women who represent 20 percent of newly diagnosed cases between 1995 and 1997. The primary mode of infection for women is injection drug use at 47.5 percent. Heterosexual contact accounts for 42.5 percent.
The principle mode of transmission of the disease remains sex between men which accounts for 77 percent. Injection drug use accounts for 10.3 percent.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said when the epidemic first hit, San Francisco was more organized to deal with administrative aspects of the disease, collecting statistics and identifying at-risk populations and garnering government support. “They were better prepared to lobby for funds from the Center of Disease Control, which went to education and AIDS prevention programs,” Carson said.
He said Alameda County AIDS activists are now organized and have political support. He expects to see the infection rate in the black community to decline.
The city is attacking the disease on several fronts. Leroy Ricardo Blea, HIV/AIDS program director said the city is taking particular aim at the disease in the black community.
The fight takes money. “One of the things we did was compete for a grant from the state to focus attention on communities of color.” Last March Berkeley received $785,000 from the State Office of AIDS. With the funds, the Health and Human Services Department has launched several programs.
One is the Faith Project that will use the African American church networks to connect the black community with city agencies. The goal is to bring information and access to programs to those who lack both.
“The Faith Project will take advantage of the communities of faith, a strength in the African American community, to provide information and access to existing programs,” Blea said.
The Faith Program will promote free, anonymous and confidential HIV testing, using a mobile clinic to bring HIV testing into the community.
There will also be access to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides complete or partial assistance in purchasing AIDS medications for persons HIV positive or living with AIDS. This program is also available to those who may already have some form of medical insurance.
Gay, bisexual and men questioning their sexuality are also targeted. The Men’s Project provides information and counseling especially to men who may have same sex relationships, but do not consider themselves gay. “Questioning males are a little more at risk because they tend to be isolated and that might make them more likely to engage in risky behavior,” Blea said.
Berkeley’s Pacific Center offers access to information for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning people.
Injection drug users are also targeted by city programs. The Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution program has officially been in effect since 1993. NEED volunteers provide clean needles as well as information and materials such as condoms, alcohol pads and bleach three times a week at various locations in Berkeley.
Since 1993, the Berkeley City Council has declared a “Public Health State of Emergency” every two weeks in order to bypass federal, state and local laws against the distribution of drug paraphernalia. Concerned citizens operated the program illegally for three years before it became the first city-sanctioned needle exchange program in the state.
For more information on the Faith Project, HIV testing or the Men’s Project call 665-7311. For needle exchange locations and information call 678-8663.