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York forums: HIV/AIDS on the rise in S. Queens

If that message had not already been taken to heart, it was delivered again during two forums recently at Jamaica's York College, one aimed at women, another at youth. The gatherings were followed by a report released Monday by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene detailing how the battle against the epidemic should be fought."More needs to be done to expand voluntary HIV testing, distribute condoms more widely, expand harm reduction and improve treatment outcomes," Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.In Queens, Jamaica has the highest HIV infection rate of any neighborhood in the borough, with 40 cases for every 100,000 residents, according to 2003 Health Department statistics. While not as high as the rate in Harlem, Chelsea, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, all of which registered more than 100 cases per 100,000, the number has still caused concerned among southeast Queens health advocates. Over the past two decades, HIV/AIDS has increasingly affected people of color and the poor, the Health Department said in its report. More than 80 percent of new AIDS diagnoses and deaths are among blacks and Hispanics, who comprise half the city's population. The infection rate has fallen among whites while rising among blacks, with black women outpacing black men."It's changed its color for years now," said Dr. Mary Bassett of the Health Department, speaking about HIV/AIDS at the women's forum, sponsored by the Health Department and York College. Health Department surveys have shown that only half of the women interviewed knew how to protect themselves. Bassett said the high rate among black women is due to poverty, the gender power imbalance and the incarceration of male partners, who may have sex in jail or prison. Until recently, 90 percent of Rikers Island inmates were not tested for HIV, the Health Department said."AIDS is a social condition," Bassett said.Health advocates at the forum have also been trying to understand and address why women in southeast Queens, 80 percent of whom have a primary health care provider, are more likely than their colleagues in other city neighborhoods to be tested for cervical cancer but less likely to be tested for HIV. One explanation is that women acknowledge or know the risk of cancer but not HIV or only have time for so many doctor's visits. The Health Department also cited a recent Rand Corp. study that found a widespread belief among black people that they are the victims of an HIV/AIDS conspiracy. More than half of new infections in the country are among 13- to 24-year-olds, and a second forum at York, sponsored by the Queens Comprehensive Perinatal Council, sought to use hip-hop culture to address attitudes and practices. Speakers warned against adhering too closely to the messages in music videos and noted that in an effort to avoid pregnancies, youth are having more unprotected anal and oral sex, leading to HIV infections. Health advocates explained how to use devices like dental dams as a response.In its report, the Health Department said city residents needed to be reached before they got HIV. At the women's forum, Loreal Hughes, a 21-year-old York College student from Queens Village, said there was a still a need for more outreach."People are smartening up, but you still have your dummies out there," she said. Unfortunately, she added, "it takes for you to become a statistic."Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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