HIV cases up among young, women |

HIV cases up among young, women

Tamara Miller

EAGLE COUNTY – Western Colorado’s unique topography and lifestyle are creating a unique set of problems for health officials trying to curb the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.The region has seen an increase in infection rates among young people and women, which is disturbing, said Jo Rosenquist, executive director for the Western Colorado AIDS Project, known as West Cap. “North America has been the one anomaly in that this was primarily a homosexual disease,” Rosenquist said. “Worldwide that has not been the case. We’ve been making strides in the homosexual community, but heterosexual infection is starting to pick up.”The increase could be due to multiple things, Rosenquist said. Methamphetamine use – a plague in many counties on Western Slope – and increased use of injectable drugs is one factor. Almost 90 percent of West Cap’s female clients have either injected drugs themselves or have had sex with someone who has, Rosenquist said. “We also have young teenagers who are having multiple sexual partners, and having unprotected sex,” she said. “It hasn’t hit home for them.”HIV was once seen as a death sentence for those who contracted it. However treatments have allowed many HIV patients to live longer lives.In turn, that’s created some complacency about the disease, said Joel Fritz, a local resident. Fritz created Border to Border, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for pediatric AIDS research.The perceptions about HIV and AIDS have to change, he said. “There’s a misconception that this is diabetes or any other lifetime disease,” Rosenquist said.New problemsNearly 30 percent of West Cap’s clients are female, which is much higher than the trend statewide, Rosenquist said. A lot of those women are over the age of 50, have been divorced or widowed, and have started to date again. They aren’t using protection when they have sex.Even more frightening, officials believe that one in four people who carry the virus do not know they have the disease.HIV patients face a lifetime of daily medications. It can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,200 just for pills, said Dr. Betsy McFarland, with Children’s Hospital in Denver. And sometimes a patient’s virus becomes resistant to the drugs.The disease can be financially devastating for a family, Fritz said. Some lose their health insurance once their medical expense get so high. Others lose their jobs if their employers find out they are HIV-positive, Fritz said. It’s against the law to fire someone for a medical condition, but “they find ways around it,” he said. There have been successes in preventing newborns from contracting HIV. Pregnant women who are diagnosed as having HIV are put on medication to prevent transmission to their babies, McFarland said. The stigma from HIV and AIDS patients remains, however. Patients in rural parts of the state have it particularly hard, McFarland said. “It’s a small town, they won’t go to physicians in their town because they are afraid someone will find out,” she said. “They get medicines mailed to them. They’ve come up with strategies to keep their privacy and then they also don’t have the access to the kind of services that are available in the metropolitan areas.”Funding woesFunding for HIV and AIDS research and services has dropped significantly in recent years, Rosenquist said. West Cap gets about $187,000 in federal and state funding. The lion’s share comes from grants and donations, giving the organization an annual budget of about $500,000. With that, West Cap employs eight people and serves 22 counties in western Colorado, including Eagle County. Most of these counties are rural, where appropriate care is difficult to get and the stigma of being HIV-positive in a small town convinces many to keep quiet about the disease, Rosenquist said.With such a wide area, patients or the caregivers have to travel quite a bit, she said. “It’s difficult with the amount of money we have to spend to travel,” she said. “But if you live in Dinosaur we have to go there or they have to come here. We don’t even have buses that run to those places.”Renewing vigilanceThe local Red Ribbon Project is one of the groups that frequently gives money to West Cap for programs in Eagle County, said Paula Palmateer, the group’s chairwoman.The group works with the local schools to educate children on AIDS and HIV. In theory, Eagle County schoolchildren should go through a Red Ribbon Project seminar two times – once in middle school, and the second time in high school, Palmateer said. “We’ve noticed that the kids are a lot more savvy about what causes HIV and AIDS,” she said. “But they are also a lot more savvy about sex. They ask a lot more about questions about sex. That indicates to us that a lot of them are sexually active.”According to the 2003 Eagle County Youth Assessment, 42 percent of high school students have had sex and 73 percent of those students said they used a condom. Hispanics and African Americans continue to have disproportionately higher infection rates than whites. Palmateer said Spanish-speaking educators are brought into the schools to make sure every student, regardless of what languages they speak, is aware of how to keep themselves safe from HIV and AIDS.”This isn’t cholera, this isn’t typhoid – this is a virus that is quite controllable,” Fritz said. Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or, Colorado

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