- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

As an inquisitive child, I was always asking annoying questions (some things never change). The grown-ups around me attempted to quiet my incessant queries with the old saying that "what you don't know won't hurt you."
I never understood, or accepted, that adage. If I have learned one lesson in my lifetime, it's that what you don't know can even kill you. Often when misfortune strikes or an unexpected loss occurs, not knowing the "why" can be harder to handle than knowing the "what." In this Information Age, with millions being spent on all manner of public-awareness campaigns, it would be hard to convince a child that ignorance is bliss.
Yet, some grown-ups today still try to pretend that if they don't talk about unpleasant or uncomfortable topics, they'll just disappear. Take the HIV/AIDS pandemic in which 40 million people worldwide half of them women are infected and many more suffer indirectly. That's a lot of people to try to ignore. Until the worst hits home. The nation's capital has the dubious distinction of having an HIV/AIDS infection per capita rate that's 12 times higher than any other place in the country, says Michael Cover of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Here, too, women are contracting the disease at a higher rate primarily through injection-drug use.
In the District, 1 in 20 adults is HIV positive. The disease is the third-largest cause of death for residents ages 30 to 44. The rate of AIDS deaths is seven times higher than the national average. City health officials estimate that 40 percent of those infected are intravenous-drug users.
In Prince George's County, 3,997 cases of AIDS were reported from 1981 through August 2002. Adult females represent 963 of that number while 58 cases represent children.
Combating and eradicating the deadly disease that knows no geographic, gender, ethnic or economic borders begins by arming ourselves with better information. "People around the world need information to protect themselves," said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan during a late-summer meeting I attended at the New York headquarters. To be sure, the first line of defense against the rapidly spreading disease is a basic test.
This year, suburban Maryland jurisdictions used the annual Dec. 1 World AIDS Day as an opportunity to promote HIV testing. Health department officials along with workers from Whitman-Walker Clinic are conducting free, easy and anonymous testing at various community locations from Silver Spring to Capitol Heights to Bowie through Saturday.
You don't have to be a Prince George's or Montgomery county resident to get tested. You don't need an appointment. You don't even have to give blood.
"No needles, no blood, and now, no excuses," says that World AIDS Day 2002 flier.
Shelli Dinerstein, a regional AIDS educator, said, "The earlier on they know their status, the better off they'll be down the line." To promote the painless endeavor, Ms. Dinerstein is stressing the county's use of the OraSure test in which a cotton swab is swiped between a person's gums and cheeks to determine if the HIV virus is present.
Each person also is given counseling before and after the test. Results are available in approximately 10 days, said Ms. Dinerstein, who also will be talking about AIDS awareness to high school students today. Along with promoting abstinence, Ms. Dinerstein said she talks to adults and teens about prevention. "If they think they have put themselves at risk, what they need to [do is] get tested and learn how to further protect themselves," she said.
It's important to get good information, she said, although "some people are in denial, they think what they're doing is not at risk and they don't believe it can happen to them." HIV/AIDS is no longer a white, male homosexual disease. Women are the fastest-growing sector of the newly infected. And most are unaware that their partner engages in intravenous drug use or bisexual relations.
Here's a word to the wise, sistergirls: Be mindful that many homosexual men refer to the District as the "East Coast San Francisco" with good reason.
Go ahead, get tested. For what you don't know may kill you. For more information about the dates, times and locations of this week's community testing program, call 301/817-3180.

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