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Advances in AIDS care diminish public's fears, Pittsburgh group warns

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Tiffani Thompson of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, swabs the inside of Keiona Morris', 18, mouth in the office of the Ward Home in Wilkinsburg on May 23, 2013. The swab will be able to reveal whether the participant is HIV positive or not. Thompson had just taught Morris and three other girls about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, and domestic violence during the program Girl Talk.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Tiffani Thompson of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, swabs the inside of Keiona Morris', 18, mouth in the office of the Ward Home in Wilkinsburg on May 23, 2013. The swab will be able to reveal whether the participant is HIV positive or not. Thompson had just taught Morris and three other girls about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, and domestic violence during the program Girl Talk.

Medical advances to treat HIV and AIDS save lives but may encourage young people to take risks with their lives, a Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force official warns.

Decades ago, the public became alarmed at the sight of AIDS patients with sores and sunken cheeks, said Charles Christen, task force executive director.

“You saw that, and you thought, ‘This is something I want to avoid,' ” and that gave people incentive to practice safe sex, he said.

Better medicine and treatment enables people with HIV or AIDS to live longer without developing unsightly symptoms. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation show that deaths among those with AIDS dropped from 48,371 in 1995 to 15,529 with in 2010.

Millennials don't see the deaths and walking ghosts of AIDS that their parents did, and they take greater risks, task force officials said.

Wednesday marks National HIV Testing Day, in which organizations around the county offer free HIV screening. Clients who test positive for the virus can get medication — usually paid for by insurance carriers — to reduce the amount of virus in their bodies and make them less likely to infect others.

People ages 13 to 29 accounted for 42 percent of those with HIV in Western Pennsylvania in 2011, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, up from 24 percent in 2006.

The number of new HIV infections in the United States has been at about 50,000 a year for several years, nearly two-thirds of which occur in gay and bisexual men, according to the CDC. The disease disproportionately strikes blacks, who make up 7 percent of the population in Western Pennsylvania but 41 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS, according to the Health Department.

As people with AIDS live longer and look better, Jeff Gladstone, 33, of West View worries that people may not take the disease as seriously.

He remembers about 13 years ago, when people with AIDS typically died and he got tested for HIV every month. Yet he kept having unprotected sex. Eight years ago, he tested positive.

“If people think it's just a disease that they can manage by taking a pill every night, then maybe they won't worry about getting it or spreading it,” Gladstone said.

‘Everyone is at risk'

As regular bars closed early one recent Sunday morning, patrons of a second-floor club in East Liberty were just getting going.

Strobe lights whirled. Speakers piled 10 feet high projected a pulsating beat. The mostly black audience encircled the dance floor, clapping, swaying and shouting encouragement to performers.

They gathered at Vogue Pittsburgh, where scores of gays, lesbians, transgendered people and a smattering of straights seek underground entertainment. It is one place where the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force wages a battle called the M2M Project, or Man to Man, against the rising incidence of HIV and AIDS among young people, particularly blacks.

Across from the stage, the task force's table offered pamphlets on HIV and AIDS, free condoms for men and women, and rape whistles. Patrons snapped them up.

Vogue dancer Danielle Miller, 19, of the South Side said she takes free, packaged condoms when she sees them.

“People just do what they want to do,” she said. “They feel they're not at risk. Everybody is at risk.”

Sobering discussion

The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force runs a program called Girl Talk, in which a trained counselor advises black teens about the dangers of unprotected sex and domestic violence.

Tiffani Thompson, project coordinator of Girl Talk, conducts four or five sessions a month for black girls ages 13 to 18.

Last month, she held her first meeting with four residents of Ward Home, a supervised home for teen girls, boys and mothers in Wilkinsburg. Two of the teens have a child, and one is pregnant.

After the girls feast on chicken wings, fruit, macadamia nut cookies and lemonade, Thompson turns the conversation to sex. She opens a book with pictures of bodies wracked by sexually transmitted diseases. One picture depicts a person with donovanosis, a sexually transmitted infection that destroys the skin. In one photo it is difficult to tell if the person is a man or woman.

Adreonna Washington, 17, of the North Side pops out of her chair, drops her jaw and stares at the picture. She walks around the table for a closer look.

“Wait. No, shut up. Are you serious?” she asked.

The four girls agree to an HIV test, for which they will receive a $10 gift card. They'll wait a week for the results.

Keiona Morris, 18, of Wilkinsburg assumed she had an HIV test when she was tested for STDs. Thompson explained she had to ask specifically for the HIV test.

“I'm worried,” Morris said, the anxiety showing in her eyes. “Me, personally, I don't trust people.”

Another Girl Talk participant, Talasia Dallas, 17, of Wilkinsburg sits in a swivel chair and talks with a swab in her mouth.

“As soon as I get done, I'm going to call my boyfriend and tell him we're going to get tested for everything,” said Dallas, laughing.

Then she turned serious.

“Even though I'm faithful to him, I don't really know what he does when I'm not around. I mean, I trust him, but you never know what someone's doing.”

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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