AIDS Still a Killer After 15 Years

In the early 1980s, a scary new disease was first discovered that soon found its way around the world. Since it was believed to be sexually transmitted, many people, to avoid it, changed their behaviors. Condom sales boomed, while others clung to the “it can’t happen to me” theory, and their ignorance, some have speculated, actually helped spread this illness.

Soon, epidemic began to claim lives of even those viewed as the least likely to catch the virus.

After 25 years, AIDS is still one of the scariest and most deadly diseases in the world. And, after a quarter century of research, prevention is still the only cure. But still, 25 years after the initial scare and the constant media headlines, it seems as if we don’t hear much about AIDS in 2006. Yet despite the disease not being at the forefront of the nation’s attention, it is still a very real and very big problem worldwide and locally, and it is still a deadly killer.

The Weekender dedicates this issue to reviving awareness of this epidemic, which in fact is still affecting thousands of people right here in NEPA.


HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, destroys the body’s CD4+ T blood cells- cells vital to the normal functioning of the immune system. This cell loss will in turn most likely will develop into AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Studies, however, reveal that most people infected with HIV carry the virus for several years before enough damage is done to the immune system to turn into full blown AIDS.


Researchers believe that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is rooted in the Congo. In 1959, the HIV-1 virus was found in the blood of a man, but no one was sure where it came from. For decades, the disease lingered in this underdeveloped part of the world.

It wasn’t until June of 1981 that the disease became known in America. The Center for Disease Control reported five young gay men in Los Angeles had a new, mysterious illness the resembled pneumonia, attacking the immune system. Prior to that, rare types of pneumonia, cancer and other illnesses were being reported by doctors in L.A. and New York among male patients who had sex with other men. In 1982, the health community coined the term AIDS to refer to this illness. Also that year, all states began to formally track AIDS cases. The following year, scientists discovered HIV, and agreed it was the virus that caused AIDS.

As for its African roots, there are many theories. In 1999 researchers concluded that a species of chimpanzees were the original source of the virus, and that it was probably introduced to humans by hunters that became exposed to infected blood. It wasn’t until 1986, five years after the discovery of AIDS – that President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation on the matter.


According to the CDC, in 2005 there were 40.3 million people living with HIV or AIDS and 918,000 are living in the United States. And in 2005, it was reported that 4.9 million new cases were reported. Still most prevalent in Africa, 3.2 million of those new cases were reported in the Sub-Sahara. In fact, in this region, AIDS is the leading cause of death. Worldwide, as reported in an AP story earlier this year, 25 million people have died from AIDS since 1981. The death toll of AIDS is nearing that of the Black Plague that wiped out 34 million Europeans in the 14th century. And, it has surpassed that of the Spanish Flu of 1918.

UNAIDS, a world-wide council on AIDS research, prevention and education predicts by 2025, 100 million people in Africa alone will be infected, 31 million in India and 18 million in China.

According to a recent Times Leader story, it is estimated that about 40,000 people annually in the United States are newly infected and about one-fourth of those who are HIV-positive do not know it.


According to the CDC, Pennsylvania has the eighth highest numbers of reported AIDS and HIV cases in the country, with 30,526 cases as of 2004. Also in 2004, 1,137 new cases were reported. New York ranks number one, followed by Florida, California, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina.

Locally, the CDC reports that in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area, 494 people (per 100,000 population) are living with HIV or AIDS. According to a recent Times Leader story, Luzerne County in 1998 reported 67 males and 11 females living with AIDS. In 2003, the most recent statistics available, a reported 84 males and 15 females in the county were living with AIDS.

Jill Arthur, outreach and secondary prevention specialist for the Wyoming Valley AIDS Council, says one of the most important things to know regarding HIV is the value of early detection.

“I can’t say how important it is to seek counseling and testing,” she says. “Early detection is very important with HIV. It means someone can get under a doctor’s care and manage the virus, and protect any partner they may have. Treatment has radically improved. HIV is no longer a death sentence if detected early. It is harder to rebound once the immune system has been compromised.”

Still, Arthur stressed that HIV and AIDS are still very serious conditions.

“It is a preventable disease,” she says. “But people need to be very aware that this hasn’t gone away and there is still no cure.”


Statistics clearly state that the highest percentage of reported HIV and AIDS cases are of gay, African American males. Because of these numbers and the nature of its discovery, AIDS was at first stereotyped as the “gay plague.” This stereotype, according to experts, led to sheer ignorance about the disease. Since people associated AIDS with only the gay community, many were not taking precautions. More importantly, the initial prejudice actually resulted in a slow start to funding for research and education programs. With the lack of education, coupled with prejudice, the disease began to spread.

AIDS does not discriminate. Anyone who partakes in risky sexual activity or uses drugs is vulnerable to the disease. It is likely that a chunk of the 40.3 million people living with HIV or AIDS thought they, too, were immune.

Tracey Applebey, 30, of Kingston, can recall the initial stereotypes involving AIDS. Adding that she has many gay friends, she says she is “worried that one day it may become personal.” She also added that what really hit home for her, regarding the illness, was hearing about the death of Queen singer Freddie Mercury.

“It really affected me when he died,” she says. “His death brought a lot of attention to AIDS. In a way, it really made you think – that it can affect someone who is gifted and talented. That’s the first time it hit me. It’s not just a poor man’s disease.”

Indeed, AIDS can happen to the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the straight and the gay. And, even the most unsuspecting. Here is a look at some national statistics regarding race and age courtesy the CDC:


(under 13) – 9,443

(13-14) – 959

(15-19) – 4,936

(20-24) – 34,164

(25-29) – 114,642

(30-34) – 195,404

(35-39) – 208,199 (highest)

(40-44) – 161,964

(45-49) – 99,644

(50-59) – 29,553

(60-64) – 16,119

(over 65) – 14,410


Black – 379,155

White – 375,155

Hispanic – 177,164

Asian/Pacific Islander – 7,317

Alaskan/Native America – 3,084


If you greet a person with HIV with a friendly handshake, you are not going to catch the disease. But there are still many ways one can contract HIV, which will then likely develop into AIDS.

Maybe you learned this in sex-ed, but just in case, look at the ways HIV is spread:

âÂ?¢ Unprotected sexual intercourse (male/female or male/male) – Use protection, but remember, nothing is 100%: Condoms can break.

âÂ?¢ Oral sex – Some believe this to be a safe substitute to sex. However, HIV can be contracted through semen, menstrual blood or to the receiving person through mouth/gum/tongue sores.

âÂ?¢ IV drug use – Sharing a needle/syringe with an HIV positive person is a surefire way to contract HIV. If this is the lifestyle you choose, do not reuse or share materials.

âÂ?¢ Blood transfusions – Today, blood supplies are tested, and in turn, transfusions are generally safe. If you had a transfusion before 1985, you might still want to get an HIV test.

âÂ?¢ Birth and breast feeding – Although there are medications HIV-positive pregnant women can take to reduce the risk of their baby contracting the disease, HIV/AIDS can be passed on. All pregnant women should be tested for HIV.

âÂ?¢ Sharing a toothbrush/razors with an infected person – Ever get nicked and bleed while shaving? Don’t share razors. And, while saliva does not pass the virus, there is a risk of blood being transferred through a toothbrush.


According to a CDC 2004 surveillance report:

âÂ?¢ Male to male sex – 402,722 (44%)

âÂ?¢ Injection drugs – 219,053 (24%)

âÂ?¢ Heterosexual sex – 117,887 (13%)

âÂ?¢ Male to male and IV drugs – 60,038 (7%)

âÂ?¢ Hemophilia – 5,427 (1%)

âÂ?¢ Transfusion – 9,274 (1%)

âÂ?¢ Other Risk/not identified – 94,504 (10%)


For many who were coming of age in the 1980s, AIDS came as quite a shock. It was a newly discovered, dangerous disease. Many in this age group were too old to be educated about the disease in school, unlike today where AIDS education is part of most school health education classes.

“I was never taught anything about AIDS/HIV – too old, I guess,” said Tony Benken, 37 of West Lafayette, Indiana. “The first my generation heard about AIDS was the public figures, Freddie Mercury and Magic Johnson. However, with Ryan White âÂ?¦ it became pretty clear that this was an issue.”

(Ryan White, a hemophiliac died of AIDS in 1990 at age 19. His story helped educate the world about the disease.)

Benken, who used to visit the Wyoming Valley often on business, says that at that point, he admits he didn’t make any lifestyle changes because of AIDS.

“The whole ‘It can’t happen here’ was prevalent,” he says. “I was more afraid of pregnancy anyway.”

Benken added that he was careful when having casual sex, but again, because of fear of getting a girl pregnant.

“I wasn’t less likely [to go home with someone] – I’d just used a condom. I didn’t have many one-night stands anyway.”

Kate Wenselears says that when she was growing up, she too wasn’t necessarily scared of AIDS.

“I knew it was there, but I was raised to not put myself in those [risky] situations,” she said, adding that like Tony, she was already concerned about other sexual risks. She added, however, that today she does not hear much about AIDS compared to when she was in school.

“It’s not as in-your-face now,” she said.

Melissa Monaco of Mountaintop admits she left her career as a dental assistant in the 80s when the AIDS story broke. She was in her twenties at the time, she had heard of cases contracted through dental work, and felt the medical field at that time was too dangerous. Today, however, she is reconsidering continuing her education to become a dental hygienist.

Unlike those who coming of age at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, for teens today, AIDS has always been a part of their life. Does this mean that they are less scared of the disease? Or, does it mean they are in fact, more informed?

Amanda Lewis, 21, of Somerset, N.J. attended college locally. She was part of her high school’s AIDS education program.

“When I was younger, we were always taught about AIDS and the dangers that occur with this incurable disease. I remember it was in the early 90s when I first had sex-ed,” she said. “When I was a senior in high school, I was in a group called Teen P.E.P, which stood for Peers Education Peers. We went to the lower grades and other schools and did skits about AIDS and other things. The high school staff thought this would be a more beneficial way of teaching younger students.”

Myles Rumbel, 21, says his alma mater, Hazelton Area High School, had an effective HIV/AIDS education program.

“My high school was excellent when covering AIDS. In my 9th grade health class, we even had a rep from the American Red Cross to talk about AIDS and how to prevent the spread of it,” he said. “Hazleton had a pretty extensive curriculum when dealing with safe sex.”

Both Lewis and Rumbel took precautions, due in part to the health education they received.

“I waited to have sex until I was mature enough to handle any responsibilities that came with it, and know the proper protection that can be used. HIV and AIDS,” she said. “You have to do what you can to protect yourself from it completely.”

Rumbel agrees.

“Growing up it was always a real fear. I always took precautions to protect in all situations,” he said.


While millions of dollars are spent on AIDS research, a cure has not yet been discovered. Enter education. There are countless outreach programs headed up by various councils, associations and school districts to educate people on the prevention of HIV and AIDS. Some programs say abstinence is the only way, while other more liberal programs educate teens and adults alike on safe sex. Either way, prevention is in fact the only way to hinder the spreading of this disease.

“I think AIDS something that is preventable now. If you are educated and protect yourself, there is no reason for it to be spreading,” said Rumbel, adding that he disagrees with the conservative approach.

“Those schools that only teach abstinence don’t help the students. Essentially, you could marry someone with AIDS, and if you don’t know how to protect yourself, you’re still vulnerable whether or not you’re married.”

Lewis feels that while people shouldn’t live a life of fear, you should still be careful.

“AIDS is out there, you never know where. You must be aware and know that if you are stupid, you are risking getting a deadly disease. Just be smart about things and you’ll be okay,” she said.

Alison Sherry 21, of Tunkhannock, feels some people are old-fashioned about AIDS, and that bothers her.

“I think AIDS should definitely be addressed more,” she said. “Maybe as much as cancer, if not more. It seems to have faded out over the years after being such a huge scare in the ’80s. There are still people out there who are still thinking the ‘old-fashioned’ way about AIDS. I’ve met them and they’re ridiculous and so incredibly narrow-minded, not to mention willingly uninformed. Whoever is still scared of catching the disease just by being around or touching someone should wake up and check their facts before they make such judgments.”


While there is no cure for HIV and AIDS, there are drugs that have been developed which are allowing people diagnosed with HIV to live longer by slowing down the progression into AIDS. This means that testing HIV positive does not have to be an immediate death sentence. One such drug regimen is HAART, or Highly-Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy. HAART is actually a mixture of several anti-retroviral drugs. These drugs can have side effects. Also, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative has 30 potential vaccines in small scale trials. Perhaps in our lifetime, a cure and/or vaccine will be found. If one is HIV-positive, it is best to speak with a healthcare provider to determine the best treatment for the individual situation.


How’s this for a scary statistic? One in ten infected people are unaware they are HIV positive. The harsh reality of this is that this “clean” person may not even realize they are spreading the disease though sex or drug use. Getting tested is the best thing any sexually active person or drug user can do.

There are 16 sites within a 30 mile radius of Wilkes-Barre that offer free and anonymous HIV antibody testing, including three Planned Parenthood centers, several county health centers, the Wyoming Valley Aids Council and the VA hospital. A website,, offers a searchable-by-zip code database on testing sites across the country. Many of these sites also provide education materials and counseling services. There are several types of tests, including a rapid test which results are available in about 20 minutes, although this is not available at all centers.

Home testing? The FDA has not approved home test kits, and the Federal Trade Commission has warned people about the inaccuracy.

(For more information, call the Wyoming Valley AIDS Council at 823.5808. Free confidential and anonymous free testing and counseling are available daily. Other information can be found at the Wyoming Valley Red Cross Center for Disease Control website at You may also call the CDC AIDS Hotline at 1.800.342.2437)

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