AIDS continues to kill in Summit County
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Summit County’s status as “Colorado’s Playground” has deadly consequences for some of its residents: The local population has one of the highest per-capita HIV infection rates in Colorado.
In response, local public health officials are taking advantage of World AIDS Day today to spread awareness about a disease they say doesn’t get the attention it merits.
“It was so talked about in the 80s,” said Shanna Koenig of Summit County Human Services. “In the 90s, we quit talking about it. We want to bring HIV to the forefront of people’s minds, where it belongs.”
According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), 30 Summit County residents have been diagnosed with AIDS since the state began tracking the disease in 1985. An additional 21 have been diagnosed with HIV, and 11 have died.
Jeff Basinger of the Western Colorado AIDS Project (WestCAP) warns that those figures don’t even tell the whole story.
“That doesn’t count the people diagnosed in Hawaii and California before they came here,” Basinger said. “It certainly doesn’t include people here on vacation, and it doesn’t include people who are infected who’ve never been tested.”
Basinger said Summit County’s party atmosphere and transient, seasonal population are factors in its relatively high rate of infection, compared to other Colorado communities.
His organization, which serves the Western Slope in HIV/AIDS education, prevention, testing and patient services, has seen an unsettling increase in HIV infection rates recently.
“Our agency used to get 20 new clients a year. In the last 12 months, we’ve taken on at least 50 new clients. HIV infection rates are really spiking in some communities,” Basinger said.
And while infection rates rise, resources available to agencies like WestCAP are dwindling.
“On the prevention side of things, we can no longer do public information sessions in Summit County schools. We can only do prevention for targeted, at-risk people, using program models that are all urban. In our conservative political environment, the lack of honest conversation about sexuality is killing people,” Basinger added.
Summit County’s growing Latino population is at greater risk of HIV infection than the local white population. Infection rates among Latinos are about double that of whites.
“It’s becoming the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. in communities of color, and those are the communities that talk about it the least,” Basinger said.
HIV infection among women, particularly older women, is also increasing. Women are 10 times as likely as men to become infected upon exposure to HIV.
“Women over 50 have no condom negotiation skills,” said Michelle Wilson, Summit County community nursing supervisor.
“Twenty-year-old girls have no problem saying, ‘Where’s your condom?’ But some 50-year-old women don’t know what a condom looks like.”
Koenig and Basinger will be part of a World AIDS Day candlelight vigil this evening at 6 p.m. at the Frisco Historic Park gazebo. The event is designed to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to provide time for personal reflection for people whose lives have been affected by the disease.
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