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[whitespace] New Challenges

AIDS activists and policy makers face complacency and major changes in the populations they serve

By Rob Pratt

FOR TIMOTHY MARONI, harm-reduction services team leader for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, the root of complacency on HIV/AIDS issues is a media complacency. Though the infection rate has dropped in recent years for white gay men, overall infection rates have remained consistent since 1992. What is largely underreported, he continues, is that infection rates among youth and heterosexual people of color are on the rise. Longtime Santa Cruz HIV/AIDS education and outreach worker Terry Cavanaugh of the County's Health Services Agency explains that the changing attitudes and demographics of populations at risk for or infected with the disease have initiated a "significant revolution" in HIV/AIDS public policy.

"There's a weakening of determination among the gay community to maintain safer sex practices for their lives," he says of recent studies showing higher rates of unsafe sex among gay men since 1995-97's protease inhibitors breakthroughs offered more effective treatment options. "But it's a more complicated picture epidemiologically. We don't have on the West Coast the needle epidemic as they do on the East Coast, where needles have infected huge populations of color."

In addition, he says, the epidemic has developed stark racial and class divides, as evidenced by the CDC report in January pointing out that AIDS cases for minority gay men now outnumber those for white gay men. And, Cavanaugh adds, "People are more at risk the lower they are on the socioeconomic scale." The lesson, Maroni says, is that education and outreach efforts have to be retooled and refined for vast new communities. Toward that effort, he continues, the SCAP-funded Drop-in Center, which provides low-cost, anonymous HIV testing and needle exchange from a tiny storefront on Front Street in Santa Cruz, is expanding to Watsonville as part of a state program to extend the Drop-in Center's successful model.

"The state is funding $2 million to open drop-in centers in 10 counties statewide," he says. "We got the go-ahead in March, and we're opening a Watsonville drop-in center on the first of August. Up to half of new infections are people 29 and under, so we're really going to focus on youth and the Latino community with the new center."

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From the May 31- June 7, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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