- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jonathan Perry can understand how HIV infections have spread rapidly in the black collegiate population. Despite common knowledge of his HIV-positive status, he said, men who say they are heterosexual still seek to have unprotected sex with him.

Health officials in North Carolina and across the South are disturbed by an increase in infection rates among black students more than 20 years into the AIDS epidemic. Officials attribute the rise to a mixture of ignorance, recklessness, homophobia and denial, and people like Mr. Perry are trying to be part of the solution.

“It’s affecting the future,” said Mr. Perry, a senior at historically black Johnson C. Smith University who plans to speak at campus forums on the issue. “This is not a poor person’s disease. It’s not a gay person’s disease. It’s a human disease.”

North Carolina researchers found 84 newly infected male college students in the state from 2000 to 2003, 73 of them black — representing 20 percent of the state’s new HIV infections among 18- to 30-year-olds. The study found that HIV infection among male college students jumped from six cases in 2000 to 30 in 2003.

The cases were linked to 37 North Carolina colleges, and up to a dozen related cases were found at schools in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

This was the first documented outbreak of HIV on U.S. college campuses. Researchers say college students were 3.5 times more likely than nonstudents to become infected.

The actual numbers may seem small. But state health workers say a drop of food coloring in a glass of water is more noticeable than a drop in the ocean.

“You have a smaller pool of people,” says Phyllis Gray, project manager for the state’s HIV/STD prevention branch. “Once you have a virus loose in a small pool of people, you’re more likely to have that virus have a greater impact.”

Further reducing the pool is the finding that a majority of the cases — 67 — involved black men who have sex with other men, but don’t identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual. Of those, 27 said they also had sex with women.

“And more importantly, they don’t consider themselves to be at risk for HIV,” says David Jolly, an assistant professor of health education at North Carolina Central University. “And, therefore, they weren’t taking the precautions they needed to. … So what that says to me is that we’re not getting the message to these guys in an effective way.”

Mr. Jolly and others wonder whether there is a cultural element to this outbreak. Many point to a 2002 incident at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, in which a student attacked another with a baseball bat for staring at him in the shower, as evidence of antihomosexual sentiment in the black community.

“We know that it’s very hard for young, gay men — period,” Mr. Jolly said. “But it’s particularly hard for young, gay men of color to be out and be comfortable being out, being public about who they are. So it’s not terribly surprising to me that a lot of these guys do not identify as gay or bisexual. It’s not a very safe and accepting environment for many of these guys.”

Erin Bradley, a junior at Atlanta’s all-female Spelman College, says the situation creates a dangerous atmosphere for women because they have no idea that their boyfriends also might be having sex with men.

“Within the black community, homosexuality is not something that is welcomed or even spoken about in general,” said Miss Bradley, who practices abstinence. “It’s not seen necessarily as a problem. Or if it is a problem, it’s real hush-hush.”

Dr. Peter Leone, the lead researcher on the North Carolina study, says this outbreak has implications beyond college campuses in the South.

“What we may be looking at is more of shotgunning effect or rapid transmission within a relatively small community,” said Dr. Leone, HIV medical director at the state Health Department, noting that infection rates among young black men in the state have doubled in the past two years. He calls this outbreak “the tip of the iceberg for what is probably a resurgence of HIV in young, black men. So it’s really a wake-up call.”

Dr. Leone says the federal government isn’t doing enough to study the phenomenon or halt its progression. But the region’s black institutions are stepping up to the plate.

The Morehouse School of Medicine has held HIV education sessions with black women in the Atlanta area and intends to do the same with black men. At nearby Spelman, incoming students get HIV education with their orientation from Miss Bradley and about 40 other specially trained students who belong to SHAPE — Student Health Associates and Peer Educators.

In North Carolina, Project Commit to Prevent was established to educate students at the minority-serving schools about the risks of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases — although more than half the cases identified in the study came from mainstream campuses. Students statewide have participated in “safer sex parties” — where they eat pizza while learning how to put on a condom properly and play games such as STD Bingo.

“Some people don’t like the name, but they’re really educational parties,” said Lorna Harris, coordinator for Commit to Prevent at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.

At Johnson C. Smith, the school distributed 325 “safer sex packages” on Valentine’s Day. They included two condoms, lubricant, pamphlets on HIV/AIDS — and a lollipop.

Campus counseling coordinator Maya Gibbons says attitudes at the 1,500-student school have changed in light of the study. HIV 101 is now part of freshman orientation.

Mr. Perry learned in 2001 that he was infected with HIV. He is doing his senior thesis on homosexuals in the black church. He says men have confided in him that they have been having unprotected sex and haven’t informed their female partners.

Whether those people are confused or just lying to themselves, he tells them that they owe it to their partners to be honest.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘When you know better, you do better,’” Mr. Perry said. “They should know better. … And the way HIV/AIDS is ravaging, raping and pillaging black communities, I don’t understand why they don’t do better.”

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