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A LESSON IN THE WAR AGAINST AIDS

A small story. The government of South Africa, it said, will soon begin testing pregnant women for HIV. Those who test positive will receive treatment and a supply of baby formula so they don't pass the virus to their newborns through breast feeding.

A small story. But when you consider that the South African government has traditionally responded to AIDS with inaction, denial and silence, well --it's a small story you're happy to see.

Still, it comes too late for a generation of those dead, dispossessed and damned by this plague. Well in excess of 4 million people -- 10 percent of the nation's population -- are already afflicted with HIV or AIDS. It's like that all over sub-Saharan Africa. The United Nations estimates that of the 34.3 million people around the world who were living with HIV-AIDS at the end of 1999, 24.5 million -- better than 70 percent -- live in that region.

And I know: You're wondering what this has to do with you. After all, AIDS, though still deadly, doesn't run unchecked here the way it does in Africa. The media have saturated us with AIDS information. Even our children can talk knowledgeably about the disease. So outside of basic human interest, what does a small story out of Africa have to do with American you?

Call it a cautionary tale. Because while it's true the media have saturated us with AIDS information, it's also true that not all communities have received the message.

Though the growth of AIDS has been slowed in the nation as a whole, it is exploding in black and Hispanic communities. In 1998, according to the National Institutes of Health, those groups represented 56 percent of all AIDS cases in men and 78 percent in women.

Those are percentages reminiscent of the African pandemic. And the response from the black and Hispanic communities is reminiscent, too. Inaction, denial and silence.

Miguelina Leon of the National Minority AIDS Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, says there are many reasons AIDS ravages communities of color. She says public health agencies were slow to acknowledge and respond to the fact that the disease hit blacks and Hispanics disproportionately from the very beginning. She says lack of access to health care is also a factor.

She says, too, that the communities themselves have failed to confront AIDS because of the stigma they attach to the way the disease is transmitted. Meaning illicit drug use and, in particular, homosexual activity. "Within our communities," she says, "we've really been slow to come to terms with the fact that some men have sex with other men and that we need to address their needs as well."

Dr. Helene Gayle, director of the National Center for HIV-STD and TB Prevention, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, puts it like this: "Communities of color did not see this as their issue early on. It was painted as a white gay disease."

But Africa tells us otherwise. And yes, at risk of sounding cynical, we have become used to having our hearts broken by that place. We've seen so much Old Testament famine, pestilence, war, flood and drought there. Sometimes, this cradle of humanity seems to double as its tomb. So you learn to shield your emotions, to care sparingly, because otherwise, the helplessness and hopelessness are just too much. And you thank God that what happens there does not happen here.

Except that in this case, it does. And, at least in part, for the same reasons. Inaction. Denial. Silence.

I look at South Africa making this lurching step toward progress, at columns of numbers representing preventable death. And silence sounds like hell.

You wonder when the churches and TV stations, the magazines and newspapers that serve black and Hispanic communities will find the guts to tell the people what they need to know. You wonder, when it finally happens, will it be in time?

Or will this be yet another small story that came too late?

Miami Herald

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