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Dallas Morning News
AIDS is still all too real

April 12, 2009
Remember AIDS?

Sure you do. It was all the talk just a few years back.

But things have gone quiet lately. And it would be nice to believe that's because HIV has been whipped and medicines have cured AIDS.

Unfortunately, tragically, none of that is true.

If we're hearing less about AIDS these days, it's largely because the disease has moved on to a less vocal, less trendy group.

Those gay guys? God love 'em, who could ignore them?

But poor people? Minorities? Heck, we've been good at overlooking their problems for a long time.

And more and more, AIDS is their problem.

Spend a day at AIDS Arms, as I did last week, and the changing face of AIDS becomes apparent. The Dallas nonprofit agency is on the front lines of fighting HIV infections among this new population - and it is strained to capacity.

"There is very little room left at the inn," said Raeline Nobles, executive director of AIDS Arms.

AIDS is now the leading cause of death for blacks between the ages of 25 and 44. It's the third-leading cause of death for Latinos of that age.

Infection is also growing rapidly among even more marginalized subgroups - prisoners and parolees, the mentally ill, drug addicts, the homeless.

I went along with a couple of AIDS Arms case managers as they visited with clients. Darrell Peel lives with a mentally ill roommate in a dilapidated shack on the southern edge of Dallas. "I've been locked up most of my life," Peel said matter-of-factly.

He's 42 and what social workers charitably call "low comprehension." But he's smart enough to know where he stands on the scale of public concern.

"Who cares? That's what it seems like. Who cares?" he said.

Caseworker Eunice Rodgers listened patiently, sympathetically to Peel's long list of problems. But her first priority was getting him back into medical treatment. "That's first," she said. "He's been out a long time."

Peel admits bringing many of his problems on himself. But others, like 55-year-old Janice Jackson, are purely innocent victims.

She is a black woman, the group with the fastest-rising HIV infection rate in the nation. Her story is typical.

"I was married for nine years," she said. "Eventually I learned that my husband was bisexual.

"Or really, homosexual," she added. "He was a minister, and I was his cover."

Because so many gay black men lead secret lives, Jackson feels compelled to speak out.

"I would love to be able to go into every church and school with the message: HIV and AIDS have not gone away.

"Just because it's not talked about as much as it once was, it's still out there."

Mark Bunting would love to go into every church, too.

He is a board member of AIDS Arms. He's a straight, white, married, Highland Park resident who believes it's time for his fellow Christians to quit looking the other way.

"To me, it's just a compassion issue," he said. "We have got to go out and spread the word that people are really suffering."

Nobles would welcome far broader community support for the work of AIDS Arms. But she said every corner of the city needs to hear the truth as a matter of self-preservation, if nothing else.

"They think this disease is over," she said. "It isn't, and they need to know.

"It doesn't matter who you are. If you are making unsafe decisions, you are at risk."