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AIDS, HIV still a big problem in Phila., witnesses at City Council hearing say
  By Tom Avril
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
Scenes from the front lines of the battle against HIV and AIDS in Philadelphia:
A teenager sends a text message to an AIDS services provider, asking how much the "cure" for HIV costs.
A 17-year-old girl, infected with HIV at birth, is reluctant to tell others, feeling that it still carries a stigma.
A Temple University nurse practitioner, who has been treating HIV and AIDS for decades, hears her mother remark: "I didn't know AIDS was still a problem."
Oh, but it is. That was the heartfelt message delivered over and over Wednesday at a City Council committee hearing, as researchers, advocates, and patients shared a flood of grim stories and statistics. Perhaps the sharpest indicator of poor awareness came from city Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz:
Of the 19,000-plus Philadelphians infected with the virus, an estimated 5,000 - more than one in five - do not even realize it.
The hearing of the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, chaired by Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, was held to seek answers. The virus increasingly strikes African Americans, poor people and, in the city, heterosexuals, yet these groups do not get their share of funds and attention, witnesses said.
Amy Nunn, an assistant professor at Brown University's medical school who has studied HIV in Philadelphia, said lots of good work was done by service providers in Center City. But she said not enough money reaches nonprofits that work primarily in infection hot spots such as North Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, and Germantown.

"Simply handing out condoms and waiting for people to come to Center City for services is not going to solve the crisis," Nunn said.
Schwarz testified that of the service providers that get funds through the city, 42 percent are minority providers.
The commissioner presented a series of statistics to illustrate the epidemic:
New HIV infections are striking Philadelphians at a rate of 114 per 100,000 people, five times the national average.
Individuals between ages 13 and 24 make up 15 percent of the newly infected.
African Americans accounted for 66 percent of new HIV cases in 2009.
A bright spot: Schwarz said that from 2005 to 2009, the city saw a 64.6 percent decline in the number of AIDS cases, which he attributed to more HIV testing and earlier diagnosis. And HIV infections through intravenous drug use have dipped due to a syringe exchange program, he said.
Along with the numbers came stories about living with the virus, a few presented by patients - such as the 17-year-old infected at birth.
The girl, who identified herself only as Kim, testified by telephone, her tentative teenage voice amplified throughout the high-ceilinged City Council chambers. She said she was infected through her mother's "unwise choices," and has trouble talking about it with her peers.
"We all bleed the same color," Kim said. "I shouldn't be judged by what's in my blood."
Anastasia Gray, the Temple University nurse practitioner whose mother thought AIDS was no longer a problem, expressed surprise that some patients were still showing up with full-blown symptoms, having never been tested.
"This is 2010," Gray lamented. "I didn't think I'd be having this conversation today."
Nunn, the Brown University researcher, said Philadelphia could do a much better job of publicizing the importance of getting tested, among other things.
She said that in Chicago and Washington, by contrast, "you cannot throw a stone without hitting an ad about HIV."
She urged Philadelphia to make an effort to reach teenagers, whom she said received little information about HIV in the public schools.
Schwarz said that to increase awareness, the city was launching a new text-messaging campaign. Also, the city has enlisted five prominent African American clergy members who next month will be spreading a message of HIV awareness to other churches and mosques, he said. All five have submitted to HIV testing themselves.
More funds would help, the commissioner said. The state recently took away $2 million that had been used to pay for youth outreach programs in the city, he said.
The city is home to 59 percent of Pennsylvania's cases of HIV or AIDS, yet it receives less than half of the funds that the state offers for HIV prevention, Schwarz said.
Council members welcomed the testimony, though Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell recalled having a similar hearing a decade ago. She said she hoped that this time around, the message would be more widely heard.
"Maybe in another 10 years we won't be sitting here again," she said hopefully.
Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or
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