While the number of new AIDS cases are down in Alameda County, two Berkeley clinics are among those still fighting a pitched battle to suppress the deadly disease, which continues to increase in the county’s most vulnerable communities.
According to city health officials, the number of AIDS cases in Berkeley, like those countywide, is down. While cases are decreasing overall, there are disturbing signs that new cases of the disease are on the increase in the African American community, especially in people under 22.
There are also concerns about gay and bisexual males who may be engaging in increased high risk behavior because of “Safe Sex Fatigue.”
To increase HIV/AIDS prevention awareness on World Aids Day, the Berkeley Free Clinic and the Berkeley Public Health Clinic will be offering free, anonymous HIV testing at two locations Saturday.
The Berkeley Free Clinic, at 2339 Durant Ave., will be open for HIV testing for 12 hours starting at 2 p.m. and ending at 2 a.m. Also on Saturday the clinic’s regularly-scheduled women-only free testing will be held during its regular hours from noon to 2 p.m.
The Berkeley Public Health Clinic will offer free, anonymous HIV testing from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at 830 University Ave.
Both locations, which perform over 6,500 HIV tests each year, will give clients test results within a week.
“We want to test as many people as possible,” said Jessie Wofsy, the HIV prevention coordinator for the Berkeley Free Clinic. “And we want to help people get the best information available so they can make the best decisions about their health.”
Wofsy said she thinks that more than 100 people will take advantage of the free testing at the Berkeley Free Clinic on Saturday. She guaranteed anonymity for all clients who participate in the program.
Prior to the HIV test, clients will speak with a trained counselor to determine how the clinic can best serve them.
“Everybody is different,” HIV Prevention Counselor Sally Cantrell said. “For example, we could give an intravenous drug user information about where to find a needle exchange program and we might suggest a gay male be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases that could put him at a higher risk of contracting HIV.”
Wofsy said people who suspect they may have been exposed to HIV through high risk behavior or had a sex partner who may have been involved in high risk behavior, should come by the clinic for the confidential test. High risk behavior includes intravenous drug use and unprotected sex, especially anal sex.
“There are a tremendous (number) of people who don’t know they’re positive for HIV,” Cantrell said. “I would encourage anyone who thinks they might be positive to come in. It’s a really easy procedure.”
According to Health and Human Services records there have been 576 cases of AIDS reported in Berkeley since 1983. Of those, 356 have died. Statistics on HIV rates are not kept.
Berkeley HIV/AIDS Program Director Leroy Blea said health officials are most worried about gay males and communities of color, especially young African Americans.
Gay or bisexual males represent 67 percent of Berkeley’s AIDS cases. “African Americans make up only 11 percent of the population but represent 32 percent of the city’s total AIDS cases,” Blea said.
While the number of new AIDS cases has decreased in recent years, the rate of new cases among the African American population is increasing, he added.
There is also concern about an increase in unsafe sex in the gay community because of a phenomenon Blea called “Safe Sex Fatigue.”
Both clinics are offering HIV testing in honor of World Aids Day, established in 1988. World AIDS Day was initiated by the World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programs for AIDS Prevention in response to the millions of people worldwide who had contracted HIV or AIDS. The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “I Care, Do You?” The focus will be on the role of men because it is generally men who decide whether condoms will be used. Men also comprise the majority of intravenous drug users.
The emphasis of education programs related to “I Care, Do You?” is that every individual has an opportunity and responsibility to make a contribution to the prevention of AIDS/HIV.
The Berkeley Free Clinic is looking for volunteer counselors to assist in its HIV prevention program. For more information about the volunteer program and information about regularly-scheduled HIV testing, call 1-800-6-clinic or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the clinic’s Web site at www.berkeleyfreeclinic.org.
For more information about the Berkeley Public Health Clinic call 665-7311 or go to www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/publichealth/HIVandAIDS/h&a.html.