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Unsafe Sex in the City

By Stephanie Dunlap · June 15th, 2005 · All The News That Fits
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At last count there were 1,483 people in Hamilton County infected with HIV/AIDS. Of those, the vast majority, or 82 percent, were male.

But that was through Dec. 31, 2003, the last period for which the Ohio Department of Health released any numbers. By all indicators, the face of new HIV/AIDS infections is rapidly morphing from white and male to African-American and female.

Sifted by race and ethnicity, 51 percent of those 1,483 were black, 45 percent were white and about 1 percent, or 25, were Hispanic.

The last number is probably low because cultural differences make the local Hispanic population hard to reach, according to Charlie Wallner, coordinator of the Greater Cincinnati AIDS Consortium (GCAC).

He and representatives from some of the more than a dozen local agencies that deal with HIV/AIDS spoke June 7 in a hearing before the city's Health, Tourism, Small Business and Employment Committee.

The city's youth are particularly at risk of infection in sexually repressed Cincinnati, several speakers said.

Three percent of those infected were 20 to 24 years old, while 7 percent were 25 to 29 years old. The numbers of infected are rapidly rising in those age brackets, Wallner said. Sex education based on abstinence simply doesn't serve the youth increasingly at risk of infection, he said.

"Health is not moral," he said. "It's a disease, and there's no other way around it."

The ostrich approach first costs conversation, then costs lives.

"Kids are going to do what kids are going to do," he said. "(Yet) somehow we seem to say we don't want to talk about these issues. We feel that unless someone with the status of Bono comes to town, we can't get the interest to keep the conversation going."

Where HIV/AIDS is concerned, Cincinnati's prudishness about sex isn't just quaint or annoying. It's life-threatening.

Reluctance to talk about sex is "probably the reason Cincinnati is the STD capital of Ohio for kids under 18 for four years running," said Geneva Nelson, chairperson of Minority AIDS Prevention Alliance. While the community talks about gunshots and violence, it needs to talk about STDs, too, she said.

Even the HIV/AIDS ministry coordinator from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Kathy Cox, called Cincinnati prudish.

"Unfortunately, until we can get around the elephant of morality, we will keep having committee meetings like this," Cox said.

HIV/AIDS has also become yet another obstacle for African-American ex-felons looking to re-enter society, according to Sedara Burson, director of Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Programs of Ohio. In spite of the incidence of high-risk sexual behavior in prisons, felons aren't tested before release from state penitentiaries, she said.

A couple times committee Chair Alicia Reece reminded passionate speakers that her committee has nothing to do with city funding, much less state or federal funding.

Nor does the city have control over the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, whose policy bars public service announcements on its Metro buses. "We're here today to get information: what are we doing?" Reece said. "Obviously we need to be doing more."

Councilman Christopher Smitherman said the city can start pushing harder for state and federal funds. He and Reece also picked up on Wallner's suggestion that the city help coordinate a "one-stop shop" for information on local HIV/AIDS resources, starting with a comprehensive Web site.

Though the committee lacks authority to do much else, the two council members said that the very fact that health agencies, church leaders and representatives from the African-American community gathered at City Hall to talk about HIV and AIDS was a big step.

"Five years ago we could not have had this presentation," Reece said.



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